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Report – ‘Partition’ seminar , VOID Derry (16th-17th July 2013), Visual Artists’ News Sheet, Nov/Dec 2013

November 1, 2013

‘Partition’: Image Courtesy of Paola Bernardelli


John Byrne (Co-Director of Static Gallery, Liverpool and Programme Leader of Fine Art at Liverpool School of Art and Design), Mary Conlon (Director of Ormston House Gallery, Limerick), Anna Dezeuze (Senior Lecturer, History of Art and Theory at University of Marseille) Aislinn O’Donnell (Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at Mary Immaculate College, Limerick), Mark O’Kelly (Artist/Lecturer in Fine Art, Limerick Institute of Technology), Caoimhin Mac Giolla Leith (Critic/Curator and Lecturer at School of Irish, Celtic Studies, Irish Folklore and Linguistics, U.C.D), Francesco Manacorda (Artistic Director at Tate Liverpool), Seamus Nolan (Artist/Dublin), Frederic Pradeau (Artists/Professor of Sculpture at University of Marseille), Sigi Sigurdsson (Artist, Marseille/Reykjavik), Padraig Timoney (Artist, New York), Katherine Waugh (Writer, filmmaker and curator, Galway), Eyal Weizman (Architect, Professor of Visual Cultures and Director of the Centre for Research Architecture at Goldsmiths, University of London), Stephen Wright (Professor of the practice of theory at the European School of Visual Arts), George Yúdice (Head of Department of Modern Languages, Literatures and Latin American Studies at the University of Miami).

Concept/Producer: Paul Sullivan (Director of Static Gallery, Liverpool), Curator: Damien Duffy (Void, Derry)


Post Script:  (Reverse Chronology)

VI. Let’s go. Yes, let’s go.  (1)

V. “Nothing to be done…There’s nothing to show” (2)

IV. They stood up, walked out, and left everything behind – microphones, name-tags, doodle-pads, coffee cups – to be preserved as it was left, empty, but resonating with the activity of the recent past.

III. Many of the participants agreed that the in-depth conversations that had taken place were, in fact, the co-authored artwork. 

II. Placing ‘objects’ in the space seemed unnecessary and disingenuous to the process, inferring that there was an easy solution to the complexities of a site-specific response, glossing over the historical and political conditions inherent in the very conceptual issue of ‘partition’.

I. With regard to the fate of the empty room, even in the last few minutes it seemed as though the camp was divided…

In mid-July a two day seminar entitled ‘Partition’ took place in the newly-developed City Factory Gallery, above The Void in Derry. A room, bisected by a make-shift partition wall, was the setting for the event. Leading international curators, critics, and academics were invited to discuss ‘what – if anything – should be located in the vacant space on the other side of the partition?’ Would the space ultimately remain empty or be rendered obsolete?  How might its persistent emptiness influence the discussions?  The event was developed by Paul Sullivan of Static Gallery, Liverpool, whose previous projects ‘Terminal Convention’ (2011) and ‘Exit Limerick’ (2012) were devised as discursive platforms to examine,  critique or agitate the mechanisms of production surrounding contemporary art. Following the seminar, an exhibition was programmed for a six-week run in the space, which would showcase the results of the panel’s deliberations. Now that we know the ‘Partition’ seminar ended with the participants walking out, leaving behind the objects, props and ephemera of the conversation, a re-visitation of the discussion’s substance is warranted, with the intention of understanding how it unfolded, how it was locally and critically received, and how its legacy might now be evaluated within a broader frame of reference.


I. Fear of the Invisible Void

In addressing the empty space concealed behind the partition, it was suggested that no greater metaphor exists than that of the ‘blank page’. Anna Dezeuze offered the philosophical insight that an empty room need not necessarily be empty – there is light, temperature, air, sound… – subtleties which cannot be overlooked. “Is there anything wrong with invisibility?” asked Francesco Manacorda, using Brecht’s Invisible Theatre as an example of an audience ‘not knowing they were in art’. Mark O’Kelly countered this idea with the proposition that ‘where there is nothing to see, perhaps there is nothing’.

The question of whether the room needed to be ‘filled’ with artwork at all, dominated much of the discussion. Art as a meeting place, a site of discussion or leisure, and an extension of the everyday, featured in the conversation, underpinned by curatorial and the theoretical insights including Relational Aesthetics, Art in the Public Realm, and the Functionality (and subsequent Dematerialisation) of the Art Object.  Several participants suggested that the space could function as a virtual library of relevant publications, a civic amenity offering a place of dialogue, or as an archive documenting off-site projects. Interestingly, in focusing on the empty space, participants began to think about the peripheral exterior, using ‘partition’ metaphorically as a threshold between the gallery interior and the outside world.  

On the first morning, it transpired that several artists had been invited to participate in the project, under the premise that they may or may not be required to produce artwork for room 2, depending on the conclusions reached by the panel.  This set an uncomfortable tone, implying that art might be somehow “on trial”. Commenting on a contemporary ‘event-driven’ art experience, Frederic Pradeau spoke  about the over-production, theorisation and academisation of art, citing ‘Partition’ as a prime example of putting the ‘apparatus’ and ‘meta-narrative’ before the art process.  Breaking his self-determined silence on the second afternoon, Seamus Nolan provided a pensive summary of his position. For him, this conversation was the co-authored artwork, and the prospect of ‘art by committee’ was deeply flawed.


II. Theatre of the Absurd (3)

On entering the partitioned space, the discussion area had the appearance of a mock press-conference, complete with round table format, name tags and microphones. An unnerving symmetry permeated the space, with a centrally-placed wall clock, dual video cameras, and a stenographer seated at the lower table to transcribe the conversation live as it unfolded.  Spectators assembled on side benches, moving freely in and out of the viewing area over the course of debate. On the stud partition wall a flat-screen depicting CCTV-style footage of the adjoining vacant space reinforced the notion that the far side would be subject to intense surveillance and scrutiny over the coming days. Examining the seminar in terms of its production, many of the participants described the event as a spectacle, stage set, or location for a dramatic production. With everyone “playing their part”, the dramaturgy extended to the inclusion of various props and objects, (including the wall) which functioned as prompts for dialogue. Performativity was captured and the spoken word was transcribed, without anyone knowing why. Was this a performance? An historical event? Did it need to be preserved, its substance re-enacted at some later date? Mark O’ Kelly suggested that “if actors re-enacted the transcript of this conversation, it could be endlessly looped, in a facsimile production.” Caoimhin Mac Giolla Leith prompted the panel to consider what might happen if all of the documentation was erased.

Following French artist Frederic Pradeau’s insight into his proposed project, issues pertinent to Northern Ireland became more central.  The G8 Summit, which took place in Co. Fermanagh in June, was discussed with reference to the ‘fake shop-fronts’ which were installed by local councils to mask vacant and derelict commercial premises, therefore  concealing the economic hardship being experienced in the locality. Window stickers depicting bountiful produce were accompanied by signs saying ‘do not touch the goods’. The theatricality of such a phenomenon, suggested Katherine Waugh, has become part of a new regime of governmentality. With self-reflexivity ‘factored in’ to the process, irony becomes permissible and naturalised. Waugh also made reference to philosopher Paul Virilio, whose theories on the ‘logistics of perception’ and the links between visuality and information in war,  seem particularly well placed here to assess the relations between culture and Capital amidst diminishing human control over democratic processes, not just  in post-conflict regions, but in society as a whole.  The shop-front theme also resonated with Mary Conlon, who spoke about the perceived function of artist-led spaces as ‘prettifying’ lacklustre commercial zones, generating visible activity, and attracting investment to the area. George Yúdice suggested that a sophisticated Mise-en-scène is needed to tackle and engage with the enduring legacy of partition’s post-colonial narrative, rather than papering over it.

As a subtext to theatricality, discussions on the Broadcasting Ban (4) referenced a broader culture of surveillance and censorship across Derry’s militant history.  Responding assertively to a lack of local representation on this subject, Derry artist Anne Crilly temporarily joined the panel. Her intervention was welcome; I have never been so glad to hear a northern Irish accent.  Recounting the psychic effect of media censorship in the North, she outlined the isolation felt by local artists at the time, and how the farcical situation of dubbing and lip-synching had contributed to a personification of nationalist culture in the global media. This discussion on the ‘partitioning’ of the body and voice may have influenced the decision to include a ‘disembodied’ audio (of the conversation) in the subsequent exhibition.


III. A New Story for Derry?

As outlined, ‘partition’ was used metaphorically throughout the seminar in considering a number of spatial and philosophical propositions, further embodied in a premeditated partitioning of theory and practice. However in its most literal and loaded associations – regarding the territorial division of north and south – partition was only tentatively addressed by the panel, and would have benefitted from greater local knowledge or the input of an Irish historian. As Aislinn O’Donnell suggested, people from the south quite often consider the historical complexities of partition (border discourse, religion, governance etc..) to be an almost exclusively ‘northern issue’. With the majority of the participants not coming from Northern Ireland, it fell mainly to curator Damien Duffy to outline the conditions precipitating Derry’s U.K City of Culture designation, which he believes only became tenable following the publication of the Saville Inquiry in 2010, providing vindication for Derry’s Catholic Nationalist population.

The U.K City of Culture rhetoric was robustly tackled, which proclaims ‘joyous celebration’ amidst ‘cultural renaissance’ in (the newly hyphenated) Derry- Londonderry, after years of ‘turmoil’.  Employing culture as a regenerative force and facet of the tourism industry, its success will be measured in economic terms, including hotel room consumption and global media coverage value – referring to the impact of an improved media profile as a component of regeneration. The role of the publicly funded gallery under this remit was also debated at length by the panel, along with the merits of preserving the ‘empty space’ at the institution, suspended from broader commercial interest. In the end, the partition wall and the discussion area remained untouched for the subsequent exhibition, with the addition of an audio and a (somewhat garbled) transcript of the conversation attesting to the performative process. Given the pre-determined aesthetic and intellectual parameters of the event, it is difficult to identify alternative ways in which the event could have been resolved. Judging by subsequent exhibition reviews (5), audiences who had not attended the seminar felt quite alienated from its theoretical content, perceived as an indulgent exercise by an ‘invite only’ group of intellectuals. Although a complex proposition was made more complex through dialogue, the event was informative, memorable and worthwhile, with Partition’s binary format becoming enlarged and ‘spatially fragmented’, producing an enduring legacy of expanded discussion.



(1)     Final line of Samuel Beckett’s  ‘ Waiting for Godot’; Last line (Act II)

As astutely observed by Anna Dezeuze, ‘Partition’ ended with the same concluding statement as Samuel Beckett’s absurdist play.  Following Sigi Sigurdsson’s proposition that the conversation should not continue, and Aislinn O’Donnell’s prompt to abandon the proceedings, Stephen Wright responded with the words “Yes let’s go”, thus motivating the participants to leave. This echoes Estragon’s final statement at the end of Act II, however in Beckett’s scenario, the characters do not move.


(2)   Samuel Beckett ‘Waiting for Godot’; (Estragon) Act I


(3)   Theatre of the Absurd – A form of drama which employs satirical, philosophical and nihilistic dialogue in exploring the absurdity of human existence.


(4)   The Broadcasting Ban was a form of media censorship in the U.K which prevented the voices of IRA and Sinn Fein members from being broadcast, dubbing speeches with the voices of actors.


(5)   The most well considered of these reviews is:                                                                             

      John Higgins, Art Review ‘Partition’,, 08/08/2013.

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