January 13, 2014 § Leave a comment
Unlocking the myths of our past to understand the present.
The symposium takes place at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin January 16-18, 2014
In this time of historical centenaries, Ireland’s national theatre presents a three-day symposium to debate the role of theatre in commemoration. Leading Irish playwrights, actors, directors and academics will come together to discuss the role of memory in making theatre and the challenges of commemorating historical events. This symposium will be a major event in Irish theatre and is an essential occasion for theatre enthusiasts and the general public. Symposium speakers:
President Michael D. Higgins
Gerard Mannix Flynn
Richard Kearney (The Charles Seelig Professor in Philosophy, Boston College)
Declan Kiberd (Donald and Marilyn Keough Professor of Irish Studies, Notre Dame University)
Dr. Cathy Leeney (Lecturer in Drama Studies, University College Dublin)
Patrick Lonergan (Professor of Drama and Theatre Studies, NUI Galway)
Dr. Fearghal McGarry (Lecturer in History and Anthropology, Queens University)
Frank McGuinness (Professor of Creative Writing, School of English, Drama and Film, University College Dublin)
Dr. Rebecca Pelan
Dr. Emilie Pine (Lecturer in Modern Drama and Irish Studies, University College Dublin)
Prof. Kevin Whelan (Director, Keough Naughton Notre Dame Centre, Dublin)
Fiach MacConghail (Director of the Abbey Theatre)
Aideen Howard (Literary Director of the Abbey Theatre)
Kelly Phelan (Convenor)
Full programme is available here.
December 3, 2013 § 4 Comments
In August of this year, the artist, activist, writer and educator Allan Sekula passed away following illness. The subject matter of the majority of his project work was framed by the relationship between capital and labour. The following is a reflection on his project, Freeway to China (Version 2, for Liverpool).
One thing that struck me strongly in Liverpool and it was certainly present in some of the fiction I’d read was this sense of generational rupture and continuity within working class families. That the sea itself was a kind of thread of escape and becoming.*
In May 2003 at the Generali Foundation in Vienna, Austria, an installation opened with accompanying publication of the same name, Performance Under Working Conditions. This was the first major retrospective of the work by Allan Sekula. It is a section of this exhibition titled, Freeway to China (Version 2, for Liverpool) which is the focus for my discussion to follow – embodying what I would identify as the working methods, re-presentational strategies and central themes addressed in his practice.
‘Our readings of past culture’, wrote Sekula, ‘are subject to the covert demands of the historical present’ (1978: 118). While addressing the re-invention of a documentary photographic practice which acknowledged its modernist underpinnings and role in ideological construction, Sekula was further critical of the role of art and photography in advanced capitalism and its commodification, becoming a ‘specialised colony of the monopoly of capitalist media’ (ibid.: 120). Nonetheless, having become familiar with critical documentary photographic practice, Sekula ascribed that there remained the potential, through a reflexive awareness, to usurp what he would define as the solely aesthetic distractions of modernist visual practices, thereby re-inscribing photography’s critical potentialities that remained.
In a similar vein and with reference to the agency of the image archive (which he defined as ‘elements in a unified symbolic economy’ (2003a: 450)), Sekula questioned the value of such sites due to their ‘depoliticisation of photographic meaning’ (ibid.: 444), where such meanings were ‘up for grabs’ (ibid.: 444). Significantly, these observations alert us to both the implications through the continued application of the photograph and the political potentialities within the meaning of photographs produced – potentials in specific critical contexts which produce meaning whilst simultaneously alerting us to the role of photographic representation and its functioning in the formation of ideological histories. These themes continued to define Sekula’s practice in the critical application of the still and moving image, illustrated further in relation to the archive and the function of context in the reading of the photograph. As Sekula wrote:
[It] is clear that photographic meaning depends largely on context. Despite the powerful impression of reality…photographs, in themselves, are fragmentary and incomplete utterances. Meaning is always directed by layout; captions, text, and site and mode of presentation…thus, since photographic archives tend to suspend meaning and use, within the archive meaning exists in a state that is both residual and potential. The suggestion of the past uses coexists with a plentitude of possibilities. (2003a: 445)
These defining characteristics, regarding the representation of the image archive and their construction in meaning, continued to define his representational strategies. We can now recognise such approaches as emblematic of late-modern photographic practice, ‘principally residing in its dismantling of reified, idealist conceptions enshrined in modernist aesthetics – issues devolving on presence, subjectivity, and aura’ (Solomon- Godeau 1999: 249).
With a continuing focus upon the high seas, his project, Freeway to China documented the changes resulting from globalisation in world ports and dockland areas, specifically Los Angeles, Sydney and Liverpool. While acknowledging the predatory impact of global capital,
Sekula identified the potential for solidarity between workers. As Zanny Begg observes, ‘the sea is embedded with the memory of earlier pre-industrial and industrial phases of capitalism which haunt Sekula’s critique of globalisation’ (2005). Economy had been a central theme for Sekula and in particular, the subject of the maritime, which he described as ‘an obsessive interest’ (1997: 59) since the 1980s:
First, ‘“the economy”’ is widely regarded as unrepresentable within the field of culture, its abstraction and complexity defy translation. Second, ‘“the economy”’ is not a fashionable topic, nor has it been one….[The] economy is culture’s imaginary bad object, even as culture in reality submits to market forces. (1997: 50)
Repeatedly, he addressed the seminal role of labour, proffering representational strategies primarily through the incorporation of text and image. In late 1999, Sekula was invited to participate in the Liverpool Biennale resulting in Freeway to China (Version 2, for Liverpool).
Building on existing work produced in collaboration with the longshore men and women of the port of Los Angeles, he was struck by the historic and contemporary role of unionised labour in Liverpool’s docklands. Particularly, Sekula noted the immediacy of the ‘neglected two-year struggle against a mass sacking’, which he identified as embodying, ‘many of the key issues of the battle against neoliberalism and globalisation.’ (2003b: 278). Having been introduced to the Dockers and their families, Sekula befriended them and subsequently enlisted their assistance and complicity in the formulation of this piece of work. Besides the photographs produced, he wrote an extended piece of text which was published, and for the exhibition, images were presented alongside, anecdotal and descriptive passages:
[To] insist that language is an integral element of the work itself, and not a supplement, is to hope for an end to the institutional automatism of the bureaucratic hierarchy and division of labor that leads us from the ‘“visual”’ artist to the “verbal” critic. (1997: 58)
In the image above, Mason Davis, a welder in the port of Los Angeles, stares directly into the camera, somewhat passively yet somewhere else in his engagement, out towards the viewer and then beyond, somewhere. Sekula documented this moment and recalled how it was Mason’s ‘first job in a year’ and then embellished the encounter, recalling how when he returned to give him a copy of the photograph, Mason had moved on to New York in search of work. This image formed part of the installation at the Open Eye Gallery in Liverpool. Sekula invited local photographer, Dave Sinclair, to share the exhibition space as a means for ‘dialogue between, what he decribed as ‘my more “global” take on maritime struggles and his intimate and “local” engagement with Liverpool history and the fight as it unfolded’ (2003b: 278).
Three women sit, engrossed, concerned (Image above), nails chewed – a black and white portrait. Below eye level, a glass is risen partially obscuring the right hand side near the viewer’s point of view. In the intimate and familiar surroundings of the local pub, the cultural meeting point, a place of exchange in this time of crisis – the latest news is awaited, possibly a decision that will shape futures, perhaps their own. The women portrayed display no awareness of the photographer, the image emblematic of a ‘documentary style’, their lack of awareness evidencing trust at this most pivotal of times. A counterpoint to the image of Mason, in format and style, however, struggles linked through a dependency concerning dockworker futures and how photography, critically has a role, albeit with caution, to bear witness.
‘But awareness of history’, Sekula observed, ‘as an interpretation of the past succumbs to a faith in history as a representation. The viewer is confronted, not by historical-writing, but by the appearance of history itself’ (original italics 2003a: 447). The constructed nature of such historical knowledge and photography’s role in its ideological grounding remained relevant throughout. Repeatedly, one is made aware not only of the subject matter of Sekula’s project work but of the critical reading of the media employed. Referencing the observation of Bertolt Brecht concerning the photographs of the Krupp Factory Works and how something must be ‘constructed’ (Sekula 1997), Sekula discussed its impact on the installation of his work:
In an exhibition space, of course, this requires more than the turning of pages, but an act of walking. Both allow the viewer to come to initial terms with the image without the benefit of the caption’s gesture of semantic anchorage. Thus also the overall picture sequence is afforded a certain visual autonomy. Overall my aim is to construct an open invitation for desultory movement between the photographically- produced text panels in black and white and the sequences of colour photographs: a kind of meandering voyage of reading and looking. (1997: 58)
Amidst the installation, Mickey Tighe and Marty Size gaze through upright rusting metal bars (image above), hands grasping, grasped – the images of them, the left part of a diptych. The image to the right is their view and now the viewers, looking out and beyond. Both have been replaced and so they, and the viewer look towards the site of their former employment, bars impeding, obscuring, an empty space and beyond and in the distance, the docklands of Liverpool. They note the workers presently employed, describing them as ‘scabs’ – non-unionised labour brought in to replace those who once worked there – Mickey asks, ‘Marty, isn’t that your machine?’
‘Freeway to China (Version 2, for Liverpool)’, stated the accompanying press release, ‘reminds us both of the distance and proximity of space in the globalised world…and the physical necessity of transport and therefore labour’. However, as evidenced in the aforementioned exchange between the two dockworkers and their grammatical adoption of the possessive article, the project further and critically challenged any all- encompassing assumptions concerning a uniformity of the impact of globalisation:
The Liverpool dockers and their wives, their families insist that theirs has been a very “modern struggle”, refuting the smug neoliberal dismissal of dock labor as an atavistic throwback to an earlier mercantile age. Postmodernists, who fantasize a world of purely electronic and instantaneous contacts, blind to the slow movement of heavy and necessary things, may indeed find this insistence on mere modernity quaint….[But] against the pernicious idealist abstraction termed “globalism”, dockers enact an international solidarity based on intricate physical, intellectual, and above all social relationships to the flow of material goods. (Sekula 2003b: 297)
Begg, Z. (2005) ‘Photography and the Multitude: Recasting Subjectivity in a Globalised World’, Borderlands E-Journal, Volume 14, 1, <http://www.borderlands.net.au/vol4no1_2005/begg_art.htm> [Accessed 24 June 2009].
Sekula, A. (1978) ‘Dismantling Modernism, Reinventing Documentary (notes on the Politics of Representation)’ in (1999) Dismal Science, Photo Works 1972 – 1996, University Galleries of Illinois State University, Chicago, 118–138.
–––––––– (1997) ‘On “Fish Story”: The Coffin Learns to Dance’ in Camera Austria, Camera Austria, Graz, Issue 59/60, 49–59.
–––––––– (2003a) ‘Reading the Archive: Photography Between Labour and Capital’ in Wells, L. (ed.) (2003) The Photography Reader, Routledge, London, 443–452.
–––––––– (2003b) Allan Sekula: Performance Under Working Conditions, Wien: Generali Foundation & Hatje Cantz.
Solomon-Godeau, A (1999) ‘Living with Contradictions: Critical Practices in the Age of Supply-Side Aestheticss’ in Squiers, C. (ed.) Overexposed: Essays on Contemporary Photography, The New Press, New York, pp. 247 – 268.
*From interview with Sekula on the occasion of the ‘Contemporary Documentary Exhibition’ at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, September 2002 to January 2003.
A version of this text was included as part of my practice-led doctorate thesis, the abstract of which can be viewed here.
September 23, 2013 § Leave a comment
Future State, in partnership with Limerick City Gallery of Art (LCGA) and Goldsmiths, University of London, is an interdisciplinary and collaborative conference at LCGA on 26-28 September and is taking place during Labour and Lockout, an exhibition to mark the centenary of the 1913 Dublin Lockout, a key moment in Ireland’s industrial history when employers refused to recognize workers in an attempt to break worker solidarity and the trade union movement.
Land│Labour│Capital will reflect on the relevance of 1913 for the contemporary moment and seek, through dialogue, to foreground radical and alternative narratives for future history-making.
The full programme including screenings, events and presentations can be found here.
August 12, 2013 § Leave a comment
An artist, writer and educator of great conviction, it is very sad to hear of the passing of the remarkable Allan Sekula.
Here are some links (here and here) to words and images in relation to an individual, whose relevance as a practitioner seems more significant as ever, particularly for dealing with subjects like labour, global capital and economy when, as he stated, ‘they weren’t sexy’. He will be greatly missed.
July 18, 2013 § Leave a comment
There have been longer gaps between recent posts than would be liked, in the preparation for installations and events regarding the project in August & September in Ireland. However, a significant reference for this project and its undertaking has been the UK newspaper, The Guardian-supported, The Joris Luyendijk Banking Blog: Going Native In The World Of Finance. Luyendijk, a Dutch-born Anthropologist and journalist, has based himself in London for the last two years undertaking research, similar to the thematic concerns of this project, to understand how the financial world operates and who are those working within this sphere. There are a substantial and rich array of interviews and articles available on the blog here, which form an invaluable resource.
However, I wish to briefly highlight a recent commentary piece by Luyendijk, titled, Our banks are not merely out of control. They’re beyond control. The full text can be read here. At the heart of the article is the realisation of the profound dysfunctional nature and structure of this sphere and as Luyendijk also observes, the market as construct being a central source of that dysfunctionality:
The reality is that global high finance is de facto a set of interlocking cartels that divide the market among themselves and use their advantages to keep out competitors.
In spite of the devastating global economic circumstance, it would seem to be business as usual. Just over 4 weeks ago, I recorded a conversation with a banker working in The City, who forthrightly stated, ‘the market has a history, but very little, if any memory’. As this project has evolved with resonances of Luyendijk observations, we may need to remember.
May 1, 2013 § 6 Comments
He is dangerous to the internal security because of his strong adherence to Marxist-Leninist principles (internal FBI memo dated April 8, 1968)
In 1909, five years after Lewis Hine had made his first journey to Ellis Island to document mass migration, another American photographer, Milton Rogovin, was born in New York City. The son of Jewish migrants, he would, like Hine, have another career before making photographs, experiencing a significant upheaval in his life when everything would change. Having graduated from Columbia University and subsequently practicing as an optometrist, Rogovin moved to Buffalo, upstate New York in the 1930s. This was at the height of the Great Depression, and coupled with living in an area defined as socially deprived, Rogovin became politically active. As he comments; ‘this catastrophe had a profound effect on my thinking, on my relationship to other people. No longer could I be indifferent to the problems of people’ (1974: 12).
He became an outspoken critic of government social policies and became involved in the establishment of a union of optometrists and optical workers. He subsequently volunteered with the local branch of the communist party, a decision which would result in a call in 1957 to appear before Senator Joseph McCarthy’s travelling House Committee on Un-American Activites. In this era of Cold-War politics, such an appearance would cost him and his family their livelihood but would ultimately change the course of his life. Rogovin had an existing interest in photography, which he recalls in a radio interview:
When the McCarthy committee got after me, my practice kind of fell pretty low…my voice was essentially silenced, so I thought that by photographing people…I would be able to speak out about the problems of people, this time through photography*.
Influenced through his friendships with the photographers Minor White and Paul Strand, he would subsequently photograph in many countries around the world, from Mexico and Chile to Zimbabwe, always drawn to critically addressing social and political-based issues. Concerned with all forms of disenfranchisement, but primarily the role of labour, he quotes directly the words of the German artist Kathe Kollwitz to describe this motivation:
My real motive for choosing my subjects almost exclusively from the life of the workers was that only such subjects gave in a direct and unqualified way what I felt to be beautiful…Middle-class people held no appeal for me at all. Bourgeois life as a whole seemed to me pedantic…much later on, when I became acquainted with the difficulties and tragedies underlying proletarian life…I was gripped by the full force of the proletarian’s fate. (1974: 12)
Rogovin’s reasons may appear somewhat dated and naïve even politically incorrect in terms of contemporary discourse surrounding class, but the motivation to photograph those who he described as ‘the forgotten ones’ (ibid.: 12) underlines his profound sense of social and political responsibility to bring critical attention to both their situation and the circumstances.
From the 1970s, Rogovin began to focus on his home borough of Buffalo and its inhabitants – a survey of miners and their families, steelworkers before and after plant closings, Native Americans on reservations in the state and a local Yemeni community, among others. The work lies within a humanist documentary tradition, evidenced in part by his application of black and white film, long associated with and evoking traditional photojournalism and reportage. However, what distinguishes Rogovin’s visual approach is his consistant and primary use of the portrait**. Acknowledging the work of Hine (Rogovin 1974) as an inspiration, many of the subjects within his images present themselves to the camera, facing forward looking and straight into the camera. As Rogovin describes:
I always asked permission before taking pictures. I wanted to get close and make people be the most important thing in the frame. I never directed them or told them how to stand, how to hold their hands, or what to wear. The only thing I asked them was to look at the camera. I liked it when I saw their eyes and that’s when I knew I was ready to make their picture. Typically, I would make 2 or 3 exposures. When you look at these pictures, you know there was no monkey business, and that I was not sneaking around trying to steal pictures of people. (Hirsch 2004: 8)
Describing the process of gaining the trust of the individuals he photographed, Rogovin draws attention to an understanding concerning the role of visibility and, as a result, the necessity for trust and the significance of complicity:
At first I was regarded with great suspicion, people thought the authorities sent me to spy on them.…[In] those days, people in such areas were not used to being photographed, or indeed being given any attention at all. I showed an interest, was polite, and tried to put people at ease…I would come back and give anyone I photographed a copy of their picture a few weeks later. Gradually I became known and trusted, and eventually people began to ask if I would take their picture. I remained in the area for the next three years. (Hirsch 2004: 7)
Rogovin added time to this process, in the form of long-term relationships, revisiting individuals and their families, which became an integral and critical aspect of his practice. He produced portraits, therefore, that I would describe as ‘over time’ – transcending time and must be therefore viewed simultaneously as both a singular experience but also beyond that singular experience one usually associates with the photographic encounter. In the images above, for example, the Rodriguez’s (images above and below), a couple and their family who lived not far from Rogovin, were first photographed in 1974, continuing to do so until 2002. Images such as these speak powerfully not only of the relationships and lives lived between the subjects portrayed but also of their intimate relationship with the photographer:
In Rogovin’s work the subject of each photograph, commands equal strength. Whether because of his respect and empathy for his sitters or the sincerity of his humanism and politics, this seemingly simple concept re-addresses the delicate balance of power between the observer and the observed.***
This innovative and critical use of the portrait was extended in 1993, when in collaboration with the anthropologist Michael Frisch, they published the book Portraits in Steel. The modern world that Hine had previously documented was becoming the so-termed ‘post-industrial’ landscape of the late twentieth century. Rogovin had begun in the 1970s to make a series of portraits of workers in the steel foundries in Buffalo. As the American steel industry collapsed amidst the increasingly globalised market of the 1980s and the once ‘Steel Belt’ was transformed into the now termed, ‘Rust Belt’, he returned along with Frisch to document this change. The result was a monograph, where portraits spanning almost 15 years appeared alongside the extended narrative of the testimonies gathered by Frisch. One continues to sense the relationship established with Rogovin in the apparent openness of the individuals taking part. Without such complicity, such a project could not have been undertaken.
Joseph stands (image above) shovel in hand, bare-chested with a vertical scar. The obvious use of flash highlights it as an environment usually lit only by the fires of the furnace. Here in in the steel mill at Bethlehem, Rogovin provides the transparent means with which the physical nature of this particular form of labour is revealed. Joseph is complicit in this undertaking in his stance and thereby completes the two-dimensional part of this meaning process. Now, the final completion of meaning will be undertaken by, and involve the complicity of, the viewer. Originally from the southern United States, Joseph grew up on a farm, and was two years short of service at the mill when he lost a leg to medical complications. This resulted in him never receiving a company disability pension and shortly after his operation the mill closed. He remains stoic in his advice for future working generations:
Well, the only thing I can tell them: get you some education, try to learn you a skill, because you will never see this industrial movement no more…that’s the reason I say the future is, they won’t be using their muscles, they’ll be using their brain (Rogovin and Frisch 1993: 312-313)
A significant undertaking, Portraits in Steel provides an extended visual and oral engagement with a changed industrial environment. The monograph is now a document to those who gave. In his discussion of the role of images and text, Rogovin’s collaborator on the project, Frisch writes:
[T]he book proceeds from a belief that all portraiture involves, at its heart, a presentation of self. It also does not deny that artifice, interpretation and even manipulation are necessarily involved in arranging the portrait session, rendering the images presented, and conveying them to others in some form or other.…[But] portraits do represent and express a collaboration of their own between subject and image maker, a collaboration in which the subject is anything but mute or powerless, a mere object of study…Stories given, rather than taken. (ibid.: 2-3)
In 2003, a short documentary titled Milton Rogovin The Forgotten Ones by the filmmaker, Harvey Wang, was released. A celebration of the work of Rogovin, the film provides insight into the long-term relationships formed by the photographer and those he sought to portray.
In January 2011, Milton Rogovin passed away in Buffalo, New York, one month after celebrating his 101st birthday.
*As described by Milton Rogovin from an interview, ‘Milton Rogovin, Photographing “The Forgotten Ones”’ (2003), National Public Radio (NPR), broadcast 14 June 2003. Available here.
**Significantly, Rogovin’s application of the portrait, was described by his collaborator, the Anthropologist, Michael Frisch, as ‘pictures given, rather than taken’ (1993: 3).
***Quote from press release that accompanied the exhibition, ‘Milton Rogovin: Buffalo’ (Danziger Projects Gallery, New York, USA, October 20 – November 24 2007). Available here.
Hirsch, R. (2004) ‘Milton Rogovin: an activist photographer’, Afterimage, September/October, 3–7.
Rogovin, M. (1974) ‘Six Blocks Square’, Image, Vol. 17/2, 10–22.
Rogovin, M. & Frisch, M. (1993) Portraits in Steel, Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.
March 25, 2013 § Leave a comment
Christie’s announce the auction of Lehman Brothers: Artwork and Ephemera which will take place at South Kensington on 29 September 2010 offering artworks and selected items of interest which once adorned the walls and offices of the British and European arms of the former banking powerhouse Lehman Brothers.
From the press release published in August 2010, under the direction of the administrators of the broke investment bank, once the fourth largest in the world, artefacts including the sign which had adorned the entrance to their offices in London’s Canary Wharf (image above) and also the contents of the art collection which included works by Gary Hume, Lucien Freud and the photograph, New York Mercantile Exchange 1991, by Andreas Gursky, were to be auctioned at market.
The timing of the auction was also significant, coinciding with the second anniversary of when the company went into administration. Citing the experience of the dismantlement of Enron, one of the administrators observes:
The brothers Lehman collected artwork which adorned their offices since the 19th century. Over the subsequent years, of course, as the business expanded and the leadership changed, so did their corporate taste in art. We are excited to be working with Christies to offer the art collection owned by the companies in Administration. The auction date was selected to approximately coincide with the second anniversary of the Administrations. We think that there are many people around the world who would like to acquire some art with a Lehman connection, and we have therefore timed the sale to ensure that potential buyers can view and bid efficiently online. As with the Enron auction, some seven years ago, when we had bids from 43 countries, we expect internet bidding to be fast and furious – having the capacity to cope with a large volume of global bidding was one of the key reasons why we chose Christie’s.
Recognised as one of the central pillars of the global market and subsequent architects of the global economic collapse, and mindful of the Gursky image, Lehman Brothers would appear to have been returned to the simultaneous site of its making and undoing.
March 9, 2013 § Leave a comment
Unemployment is the vital question … Machinery should benefit mankind. It should not spell tragedy and throw it out of work.
(Charlie Chaplin) 1931.
As part of the programme of the current exhibition, STRIKE!, at the Limerick City Gallery of Art, there will be a screening of MODERN TIMES (1936), written, scored and directed by Charlie Chaplin, at 2.00Pm on Monday, March 11th, 2013. This will be followed by a discussion from Mark Curran with specific reference to the visual representation of the conditions of labour and the resonance of Chaplin’s undertaking for the present.
Further information regarding the exhibition and full details of this event, can be found here.
January 30, 2013 § 2 Comments
There was a time when to be from Consett was to be almost a celebrity. Catapulted into the media spotlight – photographed and interviewed by every kind of journalist, analysed by economists and sociologists, the subject of television documentaries and academic studies. Now the vast steelworks site, grassed over and landscaped, awaits council inspiration. Of the proposed schemes, which have included a Category A prison, the most bizarre has been a tourist park for the elderly entitled “The Coming Of Age”.
The above description originates from the book, Steel Works: Consett, From Steel to Tortilla Chips, published in 1989 to accompany the exhibition of the same title. Funded and presented by the Side Gallery in Newcastle, the project, by the English-born photographer Julian Germain, was a study of Consett in the North of England – ‘a town invented by four well-to-do gentlemen of Tyneside because of accessible mineral resources’27, becoming home to the largest opencast mine and steelworks in Britain. With its closure in the 1980s and the subsequent transformation of the site, the steelworks were completely dismantled involving the largest demolition project ever witnessed in Europe.
Germain employed diverse strategies of representation of the town and its community in order to re-present and re-assert, a sense and semblance of this once vibrant community. A page from Steel Works (above) is open to reveal a two-page, collage-like spread: a holiday photo-booth with a couple bedecked in sunglasses, the family and the family dog in the parent’s backgarden, groups of workers standing and sitting for the photographer, a smoke break, a tea break, and small samples of texts, ‘the factory lassies from Lancaster’ including ‘P. O’Leary’. The images appear haphazardly in display and somehow ‘speak’ to, of and about each other. A sense of a living community is portrayed. However, all are black and white and the clothes look ‘different’. It is not now.
Germain presents individual testimony, anecdotes and interviews alongside his use of visual materials (above). We are invited to partake in familial memory by recourse to personal archives and family albums. Displayed alongside, are images by Don McCullin, made for the UK newspaper, The Sunday Times in the 1960s (below).
Germain also incorporates the work of another photojournalist, Tommy Harris, a local whom in addition to holding a full-time job at the steelworks, was responsible for photographing the surrounding community for local newpapers in the 1950s and 60s. Harris’s use of a square format camera would mean including details that would later be cropped. Yet, ‘it is these chance elements in Tommy’s uncropped photographs that make his work so revealing’ (quoted from exhibition text).
In the image above , a solitary hand in the upper left hand corner grasps the union workers banner echoing the central motif of solidarity.
The two women cling to the bedspread (above), stretched as a backdrop for a picture in the local paper, a daughter or a niece standing gracefully in the backyard. A sense of pride is evoked as both of the older women watch on, accompanied by a sense of purpose in their role, as this younger woman gazes out, towards somewhere. The project also included Germains’ own work in the region from the late 1980s. Through the ‘x’- marked glass of the image below, a labouring man with a carpenter belt shades his eyes and peers outwards and in doing so consciously or unconsciously implicates himself – this glass, t/his reflection, now part of a past or a possible future? As the final paragraph of the press release to accompany the opening of the exhibition, asked:
How do you define a community? The community of Consett has been defined and re-defined throughout its history…changing beyond recognition. The steelworks have been completely dismantled…what identity are people forming for themselves in the new Consett and how do they regard the past?
This work, collated by Germain, surveyed a period from 1910 until 1989 and has since been described as a ‘postmodern visual history practice’*. In a location where all physical traces of an industrial past had been removed, Germain constructed a social document of this local working community, through the reconstructive discourse emanating from the diverse representations presented, addressing an identity from the remnants and fragments of its visual and oral histories. More recently, George Baker’s description of the potential of photographs in the projects of the American artist Sharon Lockhart seems relevant and appropriate to the aforementioned projects and practices:
A genetic connection and return is contemplated, and the photographs emerge not so much as statements of appropriation and citation – proper to the debates carried on around photography at earlier moments of postmodernism – but as documents of historical remnants, continuities between past and present, the survival of what seems most precarious and impossible to contemplate in the current historical moment. (2008: 7)
In 2009, twenty years following its publication, the curator and educator, Bas Vroege, included Steel Works in the exhibition, Multivocal Histories, at the Noorderlicht Festival in the city of Groningen in the Netherlands. Germain’s project was identified by Vroege as the central focal points for the conceptual framing of the exhibition in his selection of the projects included. Drawing on the history of montage, in the ethnographic sense, multivocality, is a critical representational strategy which acknowledges the many voices and multi-linearity of everyday experience in the construction of research. Vroege seeking more hybrid, transdisciplinary and ‘slow’ ways of working, writes in the accompanying catalogue:
Without the intention of doing so, Germain thus gave birth to a photographic practice that could be labelled ‘postmodern visual history writing’. Its essence resides in the fact that no one voice can be authoritative: history is by its nature the product of multiple voices and of recombining records from different moments in time. Or, as Frits Gierstberg recognized in Perspektief No. 41 in 1991: “By juxtaposing different types of photography Germain brings up for discussion their separate claims to authenticity and historical reality within the presentation itself”.
*Germain’s practice was described as such in the brochure accompanying a conference titled ‘Work’. This was the inaugural event organised by the International Photography Research Network (IPRN), an initiative of the University of Sunderland, England (9-11 September 2005). Germain was present as a guest speaker
*Quote from text that accompanied the exhibition, ‘Steel Works: Julian Germain’ (Side Gallery, Newcastle, England, 1989)
*Quote from text that accompanied the exhibition, ‘Tommy Harris: Photographs of the County Durham steel town from 1949-1979’ (Side Gallery, Newcastle, England, 2003)
*Baker, G. (2008) ‘Photography and Abstraction’, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, article as part of year long project, WordsWithoutPictures, now available as a publication here
A version of this text was included as part of my practice-led doctorate thesis, the abstract of which can be viewed here
January 25, 2013 § Leave a comment
As Ireland turns further into its Decade of Commemorations, Limerick City Gallery of Art presents STRIKE!, an exhibition exploring industrial disputes and workers resistance including the occurrence of Limerick’s extraordinary SOVIET, with material from Limerick City Museum, exploring the strike protest that existed in Limerick and ‘excited world attention’ in April 1919.
STRIKE! presents the Battle of Orgreave (an injury to one is an injury to all) by Jeremy Deller, directed by Mike Figgis, co-commissioned by Artangel and Channel 4. In a series of Films curated by Anthony Haughey, a wide range of response to industrial unrest, across many countries from Ireland to Argentina
The list of Films on show include:
STRIKE Sergei Eisenstein (94 minutes)
Dole not Coal COMPRESS Media (135 minutes)
Harlan County USA – Barbara Kopple (105 minutes)
Salt of the Earth Herbert J. Biberman (94 minutes)
- The Take Avi Lewis & Naomi Klein (87 minutes)
The Great Grunwick Strike Brent Trades Council (64 minutes)
Stand Together Brent Trades Council (52 minutes)
Look back at Grunwick Brent Trades Council (26 minutes)
- The Globalisation Tapes Vision Machine Project (70 minutes)
The GAMA Strike (60 minutes)
The Forgotten Space Allan Sekula (116 minutes)
The following films will be screened on dates to be confirmed, with guest speakers attending:
Modern Times Charles Chaplin (87 minutes)
161 Days Declan O Connell (45 minutes)
The Head Quarters Project calls on members of the community to contribute to a collective unearthing of buried memory of Limerick’s Soviet.
These explorations begin LCGA’s year-long presentation of the notions of Labour and Work in today’s world, with exhibitions throughout the year, drawing from the centenary of Dublin’s 1913 Lockout. It is, at the very least poignant, that this exhibition opens as workers from HMV concluded a sit-in for their rights and entitlements as workers, with many others realising the instability and problematic nature of working in Ireland and Europe today.
STRIKE! opened on January 24th and continues until March 15th. Further information available here