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Belfast exposed

The Northern Ireland peace process is seen through a lens in a new AHRC-funded curatorial project, resulting in a trio of photography events in Belfast.

Sarah Tuck’s PhD research, working with the Belfast Exposed gallery and Brighton University as part of the Collaborative Doctoral Scheme, investigates the meanings of photographs after 1998’s Good Friday Agreement, which established a legal framework for power sharing in the country after years of conflict.

“I wanted to try and engage with the broader sense of community,” she explains. “I really wanted to wrestle with the consequence of the Good Friday Agreement, where the two community model emerges. I wanted to put some rigour and testing to the ideas of community  and also the language of ‘post-conflict’ – in other words what are we living in and what is the circumstance?”

She felt there was space to explore disagreement within the prevailing narrative of the two community model and ‘post conflict’ political arrangements. “A lot of the arts practice taking place in Northern Ireland that actively considers the Troubles pushes an agenda around reconciliation,” she says. “I wanted to draw on Chantal Mouffe’s idea of agonism, to consider how to host disagreement without moving into antagonism.”

She points out that in any situation, like Northern Ireland, where there has been a history of profound violence, there is a temptation to seek common ground whereby all conflict is glossed over, including questions of social and economic inequality. However, she argues that continuing to discuss problems is ultimately much more valuable — and that photography is a way in which to open up these debates.

This meant she wanted to work alongside people from different perspectives and backgrounds, both in terms of their professional experience but also their lived experience of Belfast.

So Tuck staged three events featuring the work of six photographers: John Duncan and Kai Olaf Hesse; Paul Seawright and Malcolm Craig Gilbert; and Mary McIntyre and David Farrell.

“The events were to place photography as a site of civic negotiation, so that the photographs themselves would catalyse the conversations,” she says.

Tuck curated the events, beginning with one themed around urbanism and spectrality, then one looking at place as archive, and finishing with one on memory and mourning. Each was attended by an audience of ‘co-researchers’, who were encouraged to engage with the photographs  and talk to others, creating a conversation in response to photography.

“I didn’t speak at any of the events,” says Tuck. “I allowed the co-researchers to actually respond to the photographs and to respond to the photographers’ introductory talk. Some of the conversations retain a focus on the photograph, and others move  on to  broader conversation about where we are and where we have been.”

The co-researchers were drawn from a wide pool of interested parties with a broad variety of backgrounds, from academia, and community groups. “The way in which the conversation opened up was really good – it was a type of conversation that I certainly hadn’t been involved in before,” says co-researcher Daniel Jewesbury, a lecturer in visual arts at the University of Ulster.

“Everyone that I approached was very willing,” says Tuck. “There are different registers of conversation that happen in a place such as Northern Ireland - what you might say to your friends and people that you trust versus what you’re willing to make public - so there is a caution around speech, everyone understands that, that’s a lived reality. So the invitation for people to attend an event where there was an openness for critical enquiry and disagreement was welcomed.”

Tuck’s own professional history began in theatre before moving into the visual arts and socially engaged practice, and that has influenced her academic standpoint.

“One of the things that really emerged [from my previous career] was the critical lack of interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary enquiry.” she says. “What happens if you bring an urban geographer into the conversation? What kind of other point of comprehension is opened up?”

This interest in ensuring a broad dialogue with as many people as possible will continue through Tuck’s research and beyond.

“The transcripts of the conversations [at the events] are going to be published independently, so that it is available for a wider readership,” she says.

“For me the interesting part was people from different perspectives having a conversation, because oftentimes there’s an assumption that the language of visual arts is so specialised that it won’t yield meaning for people who don’t have that art history background. But that really wasn’t the case because everyone had a point of view and a point of lived experience with what had taken place in Northern Ireland.”

Jewesbury agrees. “I was very aware we had people taking part in the conversation from different areas, nothing to do with visual arts,” he says. “So we had to talk in a cross disciplinary way. It’s not just Belfast — you will always find people [from different backgrounds] having a slight suspicion of one another, because they hold very firmly to their own terms, their technicalities, their boundaries, and they feel like other approaches are not fully engaging with problems. So the conversations were really quite exciting — we found that we were talking broadly about the same things but coming at them from a different angle.”

Tuck is also excited about the dialogue between people of different generations, and feels that this reflection and sharing of thoughts and experiences keeps her work very firmly rooted in the contemporary.

“The profound experience of what took place in Northern Ireland is only understood at a distance for those people of a younger generation,” she explains. “Yes, we’re all living in a segregated environment to a degree and there’s a certain precarity that resides in that segregation, but the violence is more of a shadow. That was quite interesting in terms of the generational exchange that took place. To only have had one age group at these events would have made it more of a historical project in some regard, and I wanted it to remain very much in the lived present.”

So far, she is very pleased with the project’s progress — she intends to submit her thesis later in 2014 before looking for a role in arts education or curation, and of course she is thrilled with the success of the events, concluding: “Photography opens up a space for a different type of conversation to take place, one that is both past and future oriented.”

Article by Carrie Dunn

Photographs by John Duncan. Used with permission.

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