Steel Works by Julian Germain: ‘a postmodern visual history writing’

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”.

from Steel Works (detail), Julian Germain

from Steel Works (detail), Julian Germain

The above description originates from the book, Steel Works: Consett, From Steel to Tortilla Chipspublished 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.

from Steel Works, Julian Germain

from Steel Works, Julian Germain

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).

from Steel Works, photographs by Don McCullin

from Steel Works, photographs by Don McCullin

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).

from Steel Works, photograph by Tommy Harris

from Steel Works, photograph by Tommy Harris

In the image above , a solitary hand in the upper left hand corner grasps the union workers banner echoing the central motif of solidarity.


from Steel Works, photograph by Tommy Harris

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?

from Steel Works, photograph by Julian Germain

from Steel Works, photograph by Julian Germain

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)


Steel Works (installation view), Multivocal Histories, Noorderlicht Festival, Netherlands, 2009 (image courtesy Noorderlicht)

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

SOUTHERN CROSS (1999-2001)

November 2, 2012 § 5 Comments

As part of the project, SOUTHERN CROSS, the series, prospect critically surveyed the space of the International Financial Services Centre (IFSC). While historically, the Irish Republic was witness to other instruments of capital, this site was the first financial district in its history.

‘Stephen from Dublin’ (IFSC, Phase 1, Dublin 2001) from series, ‘prospect’

Established in 1987, the first phase of the IFSC opened on the north quays in Dublin’s inner city in 1989 with the second phase completed in 2000 – the European location for over half the world’s largest banks and insurance companies, and generating at its height, approximately 60% of the Republic’s wealth (IDA annual report 1999). This symbol of global aspiration and capital, the IFSC embodied ‘the Irish States monument to its position in a global economy’ (Carville 2002: 24) and was ‘driven by tax incentives, millions were spent to develop an international centre that would compare with The City in London or La Defense in Paris’ (MacDonald 2001: 14). The initial focus in its establishment was ‘jobs to market…[mostly] ‘back-office’ functions such as administration and processing; however, the goal [was] to establish higher value ‘front-office’ jobs…to ensure these companies stay here’ (Brennan 2004: 33).

‘Anita from Dublin’ (IFSC, Phase 2, Dublin 2001) from the series, ‘prospect’

Prior to the onslaught of the ongoing global economic crisis, the precariousness of the Republic’s position in attracting and retaining global capital investment would be reflected early in the cover headline in 2004 of an Irish business publication, ‘The IFSC – Finance Temple or Future Ghost Town?’ (ibid.: 1). The position has only been deepened further with the present circumstance. In 2006, the lack of regulation in the financial sector in the Republic was critically highlighted with terms like ‘tax haven’, ‘offshore’ and ‘shadowy entity’ being applied, alongside the plight of the majority of the workers in this sector, whom in addition to facing mass lay-offs, it was revealed how, ‘contrary to popular perception…[many] domestic financial services and IFSC employees were never in the big leagues when it came to making money’ (Reddan 2010: 15).

‘Financial Centre 4’ (IFSC, Phase 1, Dublin 2000) from the series, ‘prospect’

prospect surveyed the economic aspirations symbolised by the IFSC – a flagship of global capital and the architectural embodiment of the ‘new Ireland’ – and included images of the landscape and portraits of the young office workers, the new ‘physical labour’, inheriting the space from those who constructed it.

‘West of the City’ (M50, County Dublin, 2001) from the series ‘site’

The accompanying series from SOUTHERN CROSS was titled, site and explored the transitory spaces between ‘what was’ and ‘what will be’ – the construction sites – being the birthing grounds of the ‘new Ireland’. The images, allegorical references to the effect of the changing geography on society incorporated landscape images made in the Dublin and county region, intersecting with portraits of the workers, those charged with the responsibility of transforming the landscape in the hope of fulfilling the desires of the society around them.

‘Sean from County Kildare’ (Temple Bar, Dublin, 2000) from the series, ‘site’

In its entirety, SOUTHERN CROSS (Gallery of Photography/Cornerhouse Publications 2002) was a critical response to the rapid development witnessed in the Republic of Ireland at the turn of the new millenium. Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) brought about the largest economic transformation in the history of a country which never experienced the full impact of the Industrial Revolution. Completed between 1999-2001, the project critically mapped, through the spaces of development and finance, the economic aspirations and profound changes of a country on the western periphery of Europe. It presented the newly globalised labour and landscape, described then as the so-called Celtic Tiger Economy, being transformed in response to the predatory migration of global capital. In his essay, ‘Motionless Monotony: New Nowheres in Irish Photography’, addressing projects which charted the impact of the Celtic Tiger, including SOUTHERN CROSS, the writer and educator, Colin Graham observes in relation to the project:

‘evidence of the rasping, clawing deformation of the landscape, the visceral human individual in the midst of burgeoning idea of progress-as- building, propped up by finance-as-economics…it stands as an extraordinary warning of the future that was then yet to come (2012: 15).

‘Financial Centre 5’ (IFSC, Phase 2, Dublin 2001) from the series, ‘prospect’

Commissioned by the Gallery of Photography, Dublin in 2000 as recipient of the inaugural Artist’s Award, the exhibition of the same name took place in 2002. It was accompanied by a publication with the support of the construction sector of the trade union, SIPTU, and included the essay titled, ‘Arrested Development’ by writer and educator, Justin Carville and poem, ‘Implications of a sketch’ by poet and writer, Philip Casey. Further presentations included Cologne, Germany (2003), Lyon, France (2004), Paris, France (2005) and Damascus, Syria (2005).

References cited:
Brennan, C. (2004) ‘Financial Centre of Gravity’, Business & Finance (vol.40, no.14) 15 July-11 August, 32-36.
Carville, J. (2002) ‘Arrested Development’ in Curran, M., Southern Cross, Dublin: Gallery of Photography.
Graham, C. (2012) ‘Motionless Monotony: New Nowheres in Irish Photography’, In/Print, Volume 1, 1-21
IDA Ireland (2000) Annual Report 1999, IDA, Dublin.
MacDonald, F. (2001) 7 February, ‘Capital Architecture’, The Irish Times, pp. 14.
Reddan, F. (2010) 4 April, ‘Behind The Façade’, The Irish Times, pp.15.


April 22, 2012 § Leave a comment

Based on the project Fish Story, by artist, writer and educator, Allan Sekula, his new film, The Forgotten Space, co-directed with Noël Burch, seeks ‘to understand and describe the contemporary maritime world in relation to the complex symbolic legacy of the sea’. Framed by the processes of globalisation, the sea represents, ‘slow time’:

from The Forgotten Space (still)

Once you start thinking transnationally, you’re led to the sea: the ship is the first great instrument of globalisation…you can observe the compression of time and space in the modern world from the decks of a containerised cargo vessel.

In his notes, Sekula continues:

Our film is about globalization and the sea, the “forgotten space” of our modernity. First and foremost, globalization is the penetration of the multinational corporate economy into every nook and cranny of human life…our premise is that the sea remains the crucial space of globalization. Nowhere else is the disorientation, violence, and alienation of contemporary capitalism more manifest.

A significance of the original project and now the film, is the insight it provides concerning the complex yet determining relationship between labour and capital in all its globalised settings.  The overarching context referenced in images from the Shanghai Stock Exchange.

from The Forgotten Space (still)

The film has received a degree of media attention as witnessed in a recent interview with Sekula titled, ‘Filming the forgotten resistance at sea’, by the Guardian Newspaper addressing the project and its reception and can be found here. While a roundtable discussion between Sekula, Burch along with the cultural geographer and Professor at City University of New York (CUNY), David Harvey and art historian and curator, Benjamin Buchloh, following a screening at Cooper Union in May, 2011, can be viewed here.

Ultimately, while the film makes visible another labour narrative and its integral significance in a modernity that perhaps could be overlooked or indeed forgotten, critically, according to the curator and writer, Jennifer Burris, it equally proposes:

Forms of material resistance that not only reintroduce the maritime world as a space forgotten within the hypertrophied narratives of electronic trading and consumption-driven economies, it also argues for an understanding of the current financial crisis not as an aberration of global capital, but as a pathology intrinsic to capitalism itself.

from The Forgotten Space (photograph by Allan Sekula)

THE MARKET a project by Mark Curran

January 9, 2012 § 10 Comments

In the continuing evolutionary aftermath of the global economic collapse of 2008/2009 and absence of sustained practice-led research engagement with the central locus of this catastrophic event, the ethnographically informed, multi-sited, transnational project, THE MARKET (2010-), builds upon the cycle of long-term research projects, beginning in the late 1990s, by practice-led researcher and educator, Mark Curran, and focuses on the functioning and condition of the global markets and the central role of financial capital.

THE MARKET (installation image) Belfast Exposed 2013

THE MARKET (installation image) Belfast Exposed 2013

The cycle of multi-media research projects, addressing the predatory context resulting from migrations and flows of global capital began with SOUTHERN CROSS (1999-2001)(Gallery of Photography/Cornerhouse 2002) which surveyed the spaces of development and finance of the so-called ‘Celtic Tiger’ Irish Republic. This was followed by  The Breathing Factory (2003-2006)(Edition Braus/Belfast Exposed/Gallery of Photography 2006) and subject of his practice-led PhD, sited in a multinational complex in Leixlip in the East of Ireland, the project addressed the role and representation of labour, global labour practices and fragile nature of globalised industrial space. Ausschnitte aus EDEN/Extracts from EDEN (2003-2009)(Arts Council of Ireland, 2011) focused upon a declining industrial and coalmining region in the former East Germany, an area which prophetically evidenced the massive impact regarding the unevenness of development inherent through the functioning of neoliberal globalisation. All projects are intended to demonstrate a continuing and sustained engagement addressing the predatory impact of global capital.

Critically, the ongoing project, THE MARKET, which began in 2010, seeks to access those sites, which all of the other project work to date has also been decisively defined, spaces where literally and metaphorically, futures are speculated upon – the global markets – and to explore, survey and excavate focusing upon their operating functioning and how this is reflected in for example, language, architectural understandings and centrally, the individuals who inhabit, dwell and labour within these global financial spheres. Conceptually pivotal and mindful of technological evolution with specific reference to the role and functioning of algorithms, has been a desire to both make visible an understanding of such sites and to explore the interconnectedness of such markets. Therefore, multi-sited access has been sought to survey various global locations, including sites in Dublin, London, Frankfurt, Addis Ababa and Mumbai. Extended stays and re-visits have been undertaken in each location to facilitate further research regarding the site, address access, establish contacts and develop relationships with individuals as key collaborators and informants of the project.

As demonstrated in Curran’s previous projects, the cross-disciplinary interventions have included an ethnographic understanding in the collaborative and multi-vocal application of media in the form of photography, audio-digital video, soundscape and the collation of verbal testimony. The intention for THE MARKET has been to afford process-led undertakings over the course of its construction, extending to site-specific interventions, web presence and forums around the project installations incorporating interested parties thereby facilitating the opening up of discursive spaces around the central thematic.

The anthropologist, Karen Ho’s central argument is that Wall Street investment bankers reshape corporate America in their own image, and through the construction of the market, result in the manufacture of crises while simultaneously, ‘assuring its rescue’ (2009: 323). In this, as she defines, ‘economy of appearances’, Ho outlines operating structures, the significance regarding ‘pedigree’, citizen complicity and the critical role of fear in this ‘culture of liquidity’ (ibid.)’ Ho, K. (2009) Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street New York: New York University.

In the financial markets, there is a natural predatory instinct that is hard to control (former trader and author, Micheal Lewis, BBC World Service, 9 May 2010)

The video shows a taped up plastic curtain inside the factory, one that seems to be installed for blocking the artist from viewing production equipment and process. Although we cannot see, there seems to be a working (breathing) machine inside the curtain as it, almost unnoticeably, inflates and deflates repetitiously. In fact, the video seems to summate what the audience experiences in the exhibition. The camera made its way inside the factory, but it cannot tell us what the employees actually do or what they produce. We are only allowed to hear the breathe of the factory. This is analogous to today’s globalised economy and financial markets. For many of us, it is almost unfathomable to understand how they operate. We are left outside of a curtain, inside of which a giant machine breathes intermittently. (from Spectators of the Same Story: Economy, Technology, Photography, Jung Joon Lee, Review of The Breathing Factory: A Project by Mark Curran, DePaul Art Museum (DPAM), Chicago January-March 2010, CAMERAta, Seoul, Korea, May 2010)

Keywords Global Capital, Ethnography, Photography, Speculation, Transnational, Vulnerable, Fieldwork, Precarity, Testimony, Cross-disciplinary, Labour, Witness, Reflexive, Installation, Montage, Multivocality, Access, Technology, Algorithms, Visual Art, Futures

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