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Catalogue Text – Christine Mackey ‘Backlands’ Public Art Commission, 2014

June 11, 2014

I. Art Walks: Logging Speculative Journeys

Walking as a method of artistic practice has been well documented across a range of 20th century art movements (i) . Adapted from ethnographic and geographical fieldwork, ‘art walking’ is widely acknowledged as an increasingly important artistic research tool. It forms part of a perceptible shift away from ‘object-orientated’ practice, towards more participatory methods of engaging with ‘place’. In short, the walk becomes the artwork.

While much of this activity has previously focused on cities and urban space, there is also a growing curiosity about suburban, rural, periphery, border and other contested landscapes. This renewed interest in local scenarios is pitched in opposition to an increasingly globalised view of the world. The grounded act of walking reveals alternative routes which reach beyond the logical confines of Ordinance Survey, Google Earth or GPS navigation software. In relinquishing existing maps, the act of being present in an unfamiliar location requires other, more intuitive methods of orientation.
Through a series of inventive strategies for exploring the town of Ballaghaderreen, ‘Backlands’ participants embarked on numerous walks, discovering pathways, climbing gates, navigating rivers, following byroads and waste-grounds, interacting with locals and getting lost. These journeys led to objects, landmarks and stories that indicate recent or distant history. Relying on their senses, participants became responsive to what they could hear, smell and see. These sensorial events were documented through note-taking, photographs, diagrams, sketches, observations of plant-life and descriptions of architecture, constructing unique and intimate readings of this place.
The information was compiled and presented using a ‘log’ format, most commonly associated with official records of vessels’ journeys. A log is an accumulated account (either in rough or finished form) of the conditions, events and particulars of navigation, while also denoting distance or time covered. Logs are also employed in film production to annotate certain scenes for future editing. As a parallel to walking, this narrative process encompassed local oral history, folklore, family and place names. From the lesser-known edges, ‘Backlands’ aimed to construct a set of relations particular to the ‘centre’.

II. Deep Mapping: Ecologies of Place
‘Deep mapping’ references a complex array of physical, social and emotional structures – something academic researcher Dr. Iain Biggs describes as ‘an essaying of place’ (ii) . This process highlights a range of inter-connected ecological, historical, mythical, visual, archaeological, scientific, cultural, linguistic, and intuitive elements which may be suggested within the physical landscape. Whether as an image map, temporary intervention or open-ended archive, the material products of deep mapping aim to implicate the viewer in a wider conversation. Local concerns become relevant at a national level, not least in terms of human relationships with the native landscape – a topic which has been subject to centuries of debate in Ireland. The west of Ireland, in particular, has been portrayed as “an imaginary, mystical and timeless landscape” (iii) . The process of deep mapping is particularly well-placed to side-step such well-worn stereotypes. In Ballaghaderreen, seemingly insignificant spaces revealed remnants of history concealed below the surface.
Compiled as a ‘user-guide’, ‘Backlands’ directs the walker through the town’s laneways and cul-de-sacs, (Walk 4), overgrown green spaces (Walk 9), derelict factories (Walk 15) and lesser-known landmarks. Architectural features, such as the tall chimney stack of an old saw mill (Walk 16) and a former railway station (Walk 18) collectively attest to the town’s industrial heritage as a hub for transport and trade. Locations known only to locals, such as the ‘kissing gate’ (Walk 3) and the ‘secret garden’ (Walk 24), are juxtaposed alongside artefacts of national significance like the Royal Mail post boxes (Walk 8) – painted green following Irish independence. Shrines, holy statues, and the commanding architecture of St. Nathy’s Cathedral (Walk 2) seem to memorialise the influence of Catholicism in rural Ireland, while an unusual free-standing cross in St. Mary’s Chapel Graveyard (Walk 24) suggests an earlier ecclesiastical presence, indicative of past empires. Local stories are affectionately relayed, while historical and archival information rigorously supports each stage of the journey. Such site-specific dialogue generates insights into intertwining industrial, religious, social and militarised pasts, and prompts reflection on how multiple layers of human history might co-exist, and be viewed from the vantage-point of today.

III. The Commons, Ruin and (re-)Building
Just as the ‘local’ has been revived in opposition to a globalised view of the world, a growing curiosity about systems which support a localised mindset have also resurfaced as part of this conversation. Discourse surrounding ‘the commons’, aims to revive historical models for communal, cooperative, self-sufficient and sustainable living, as counter-cultures to the erosion of social space resulting from privatisation and enclosure – Imperial processes which have transformed common land into commodities, measurable only in economic terms. This is all too apparent in county Roscommon, which has one of the highest numbers of ghost estates in post-Celtic Tiger Ireland, comprising over 300,000 partially-built, vacant or semi-derelict houses (iv). Commonage discourse takes a critical view of this current situation – not least in ecological, ethical and social terms – where economic growth at any cost has resulted in greed, wastefulness and ruin.
Ultimately ‘Backlands’ facilitates a close re-reading of the immediate physical landscape, generating insights into human habitation, through a process of ‘making visible’ past civilisations. From this vantage-point we can imagine the once bustling ‘Shambles’ market square (Walk 13), the allotments ‘plots’ (Walk 23), the village green (Walk 11) and the former outdoor swimming pool (Walk 6) as epicentres of communal life. We can also appreciate the value of the early 20th century electricity-generating water turbine (Walk 5) and the sewerage systems (Walk 14) which worked sustainably with the natural elements. Such insights allow us to scrutinise the present situation, by identifying flawed aspects of modern civic life, and what contributions our civilisation might make to history’s long trajectory. Now largely devoid of indigenous industry and with a surplus of vacant commercial premises and uninhabitable houses, Ballaghaderreen is a metaphor for many rural and provincial towns, nationally and further afield, which now require ‘re-investment’ in community and sustainable approaches to ‘re-building’, offering these landlocked territories a sense of horizon.
As a log of past journeys and a tool-box for orientation, ‘Backlands’ is a fresh invitation to wander. Armed with local knowledge, new participants are encouraged to adopt ‘art walking’ or ‘deep mapping’ principals, to carry out their own speculative drifts and active discoveries. In this way, citizens might stumble upon forgotten artefacts or partially concealed pathways, forging new routes, while looking to history for clues on how to proceed at a humanly pace towards a more poetic future.

(i) An interest in walking as a leisure pursuit emerged during Romanticism, accumulating in mid 19th century France with discourse surrounding the ‘flâneur’ as a figure of literary and philosophical significance. 20th century movements such as The Surrealists and The Situationists further probed walking as a revolutionary act. The concept of Psychogeography was developed by the Lettrist International movement, with Guy Debord defining urban wandering as a ‘speculative drift’ and ‘renovated cartography’ in 1955. Aligning with the history of protest walks, the conceptual and symbolic significance of walking was explored by avant-garde and Fluxus movements, and Land Art practices of the late 1960’s. Contemporary approaches to urban and rural walking have further expanded the tradition of psychogeography, to encompass memory studies, counter-tourism, digital technologies and virtual landscapes, occurring at the interface between art, architecture, and social practice.

(ii) Iain Biggs ‘All Flesh is Grass: Deep mapping as an ‘essaying’ of place’ (Illustrated talk given at the Writing seminar at the Bartlett School of Architecture, Friday 9th July, 2010)

(iii) Joe Cleary, ‘Into Which West? Irish Modernity and the Maternal Supernatural’, in Literature and the Supernatural: Essays for the Maynooth Bicentenary, ed. Brian Cosgrove, (Blackrock, Ireland: The Columba Press, 1995), p.p. 147-73 155.

(iv) Rob Kitchin, Justin Gleeson, Karen Keaveney and Cian O’Callaghan (July 2010) ‘A Haunted Landscape: Housing and Ghost Estates in Post-Celtic Tiger Ireland’ , National Institute for Regional and Spatial Analysis, NUI Maynooth & School of Spatial Planning, Architecture and Civil Engineering, Queens University Belfast, NIRSA Working Paper 59.

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