Project Space Belfast

Workshop: Cultural production in rural environments and small towns. 17 - 20 June 2010
Belfast and Ballykinler (small costal village 40min South of Belfast).

Overall question: How to bridge the gap between cultural/ art projects and the public?

This workshop will be a theoretical session based on the practical experiences of the participants.
The forum will debate the issue of cultural re-appropriation of spaces and the barriers between cultural/ artistic intervention and public inclusion, especially in rural areas, village contexts and culturally underresourced locations (cultural production at the fringes):
- ways of engagement, participation and collaboration (equal partner, expert, context pleaser)
- our individual and collective interests and expectations in public projects (from indicating or provoking alternatives to merely being comforting)
- our motives/ ideologies/ social interests and ambitions, why we engage with the public in creative ways (from social concern to artistic/ academic profiling)
- how can the relationship between cultural activist/ artist and community/ audience be analysed, fostered, empowered and equalized
- what is the balance between creative independence and social/ political commitment (from autonomous work to conspirator and social worker)
- how to create impulses, stimulate desire and instil a demand for cultural participation and creative DIY.

Presentation: Oda Projesi

RHYZOM partners
aaa , Paris- Anne Querrien
public works, London- Kathrin Boehm                                          
cultural agencies, Istanbul , A. Seçil Yersel Kosova, Özge Açıkkol  (Oda Projesi)
Agency, Sheffield
PS², Belfast - Fiona Woods, Ruth Morrow, Bryonie Reid, Peter Mutschler  

Christoph Schaefer and Margit Czenki - Park Fiction, Hamburg
Anne- Marie Dillon                   artist, activist
Catherine Roberts                  artist/PS²
Forever Young Pensioners, Ballykinler
Report (Bryonie Reid)

Friday 18th June
We spend the day in discussion at PS² in Belfast. Present are Peter Mutschler, Fiona Woods, Anne Querrien (representing aaa), Özge Açikkol and Seçil Yersel Kosova (from Oda Projesi and Cultural Agencies). At lunchtime Kathrin Böhm (from public works and my villages) gets here, and later in the afternoon Ruth Morrow, Christoph Shäfer and Margit Czenki arrive.

Thinking about what is meant by the terms ‘rural’ and ‘urban’, which often are defined crudely or vaguely, Anne points out that ‘rural’ can refer to a mindset, and that aaa (with whom she works) aim to return this mindset to the urban environment of Paris via their Rurban project. Seçil and Özge speak about the work of Cultural Agencies in the Istanbul neighbourhood of Gülsuyu-Gülensu, explaining that here, the line between ‘urban’ and ‘rural’ is blurred, and although the area exists within the city and has access to at least some urban infrastructure such as public transport, it is self-built and referred to as a village, and at least until the 1980s had agricultural land within its boundaries. Addressing the issue of how to define practice and especially space as public in this neighbourhood, they emphasise that cultural spaces accessible to men and women are scarce; the only examples they can think of are wedding halls, privately owned buildings rented out for wedding parties, and bazaars. Currently, Facebook groups for the neighbourhood offer an opportunity for public discussion and cultural and social engagement which would be more problematic in material rather than virtual space.

During the PS² fieldtrip, the question of whether cultural activities need to be housed (in temporary or permanent spaces) was discussed at length, and it comes up again here. Seçil points out that in Gülsuyu-Gülensu ‘question-mark’ spaces – that is, spaces which are difficult to define – can be used to provoke interest and engagement, simply because every other space in the area is strictly classified in terms of what can take place there, and who can participate.
The group suggest that accessible spaces help to cohere work in rural and urban communities alike, as well as creating around them possibilities for unintentional engagements and acting as an interface between artists/practitioners and communities. I wonder whether occupying and working in or from a defined space (such as Dükkâni in Gülsuyu-Gülensu) can be seen as an ethical choice, making the artist consistently visible and to some extent responsible or accountable to the community with whom they work. Anne considers that at a practical level, when communities have issues with work being done by artists or architects or other cultural practitioners in their neighbourhoods, if they know there is a space in which this person or these people can be found, problems can be addressed face-to-face and often resolved more easily and with fewer opportunities for misunderstanding and upset.
Moving on to the questions Peter posed to all attendees, of how practices which involve public participation work, presentations on specific projects begin.
Peter introduces the Space Shuttle project, in which artists were lent a mobile space in which or from which to work in different parts of Belfast. The discussion centres on ‘Shiny Sparkly Sunday’, which was organised by Call Centre Collective among a number of other Space Shuttle activities on the Donegall Pass. This is an area in which loyalist and masculinist sectarian and gender politics predominate, and the artists arranged for massage and aromatherapy to be available to women only on this day. Peter explained that he had difficulty in seeing it as art practice at the time, although it was clear that this activity had the strongest impact on the community and became a decisive moment in the development of a women’s group there. The group discuss with some animation this question of defining practices as ‘art’ or ‘not art’. Kathrin suggests that beauty treatments do not change their nature in this instance, but are being used as a strategy in a wider cultural project; she argues that mundane activities provide a common denominator between artists and communities, but can be given friction or tension by artists, which she describes as sharing the familiar in order to introduce the unfamiliar. For Seçil, ‘Shiny Sparkly Sunday’ functioned as art crucially because of its shift of the usage of space; that is, the beauty treatments in themselves are unremarkable, but the fact that they occurred in the Space Shuttle rather than in a beauty parlour is incongruous and therefore interesting. Anne agrees, and calls this ‘an action of transformation’. One of Peter’s images shows a notice on the door of the Space Shuttle which says ‘To respect the woman’s privacy – PLEASE KNOCK’, and Seçil notes that this is very significant in relation to public space; not only does it delimit a space for women, but the notice also affects the wider area around this enclosed space.
Seçil and Özge, talking about their work in Oda Projesi and Cultural Agencies, indicate that situating themselves in a community means that they cannot dictate the level or type of engagement from the public. Seçil believes that Cultural Agencies’ shop in Gülsuyu-Gülensu ‘speaks by itself’, whether or not it is open and occupied, because of the explanatory text which is posted at its door, and because in itself it is an alien object in the neighbourhood with its own references and acts almost like a sculpture.
Fiona speaks about her work in Silvermines, a small village in County Tipperary in the Republic of Ireland. She points out that the idea of contested space is well theorised in urbanism, but not in terms of the rural. Very unusually in Ireland, after having been abandoned by international mining concerns, and neglected by its own government, the village has carved out its own public spaces, held and fenced and cared for in common, on an informal basis.
Christoph and Margit present their work Park Fiction, carried out in Hamburg. Their practice of involving communities and activists in a process of reimagining and reshaping public space (which happens in parallel to official processes as a strategy of resistance) means that when ground-level activity has reached a certain level and cannot be ignored by local and state governments, the communities and activists have laid claim already to the territory in question. Interestingly, one element of Park Fiction which was forbidden by the authorities was Park Fiction Archive, which was imagined as a rectangular building on stilts; the reason given for disallowing it was its inaccessibility to the disabled, but I think that the building’s function as the container and therefore transmitter of memories of resistance had bearing on that decision and Christoph and Margit concur.
Kathrin concludes the presentations with a discussion of International Village Shop, which configures both urban and rural areas as producers and consumers of items with strong local identities. However, at times its emphasis has been on the rural over the urban, and especially on the slow construction of a rural social space made up of relational and geographical networks.

Army vist

Saturday 19th June
We travel to Ballykinler in south County Down with Anne-Marie Dillon to find out more about her work in the village. We are welcomed by residents (who later provide us with a delicious and enormous lunch). We are joined by Sarah, an architect and university colleague of Ruth’s and her partner Andy, also an architect by training, and later by Joanne Cunningham, a community worker in Belleek in County Fermanagh whom we met during the PS² field trip.
Visiting the army camp which is in the middle of Ballykinler and occupies a bigger area than the village itself, we are given a presentation by 2nd Battalion The Rifles’ Lieutenant Colonel. He tells us that the army now live in the camp on a more or less permanent basis; during the Troubles, no regiment would stay in a Northern Irish camp for more than two years and families would rarely if ever accompany them, but now the soldiers use this camp much like any other within the United Kingdom, as a base from which to go out to Iraq and Afghanistan, and a place for their families to live. The Lieutenant Colonel explains that this gives the soldiers and officers a sense of investment in Ballykinler, saying ‘this is where we live now’.  According to him, the battalion are given ‘unexpectedly’ strong support by the local community, and the families living in the army camp are welcomed there. He is pleased that awareness of British regiments settling in Northern Ireland has been raised, and indicates that Ballykinler is a good place to which to bring families, being close to beautiful beaches and mountains and parks. From a practical perspective, the rural and coastal setting of the camp allows plenty of room for rifle ranges, which we later learn are hired out to gun clubs and other groups including the police, and as such the camp itself constitutes a source of revenue. Discussing the battalion’s reasons for settling in Ballykinler, he points to the changing situation in Northern Ireland, where the army has seen ‘the end of assisting the police’ since the establishment of the peace process (this is a profoundly euphemistic term for the British Army’s role in Northern Ireland during the Troubles). He concludes by emphasising his hope that the fence around the camp is ‘porous’ and points to what he considers an encouraging development that some families in the village come into the camp to make use of their sports facilities. Anne-Marie asks if the army plans to move on, and he denies knowledge of any plans to abandon the camp.

Presentation of crafts work and 'local cultural production' by the' Forever Young Pensioners'

Outside, it becomes evident that the army’s sense of their place in Ballykinler is very different from Anne-Marie’s. Her concerns centre on the vast area of land (including a substantial length of the foreshore) which comprises the camp, the community’s lack of access to it presently, and future uses of the land should it be abandoned by the army. We learn from Anne-Marie that she personally, and others in the village and surrounding area, are sceptical of the army’s claims to being committed to staying in Ballykinler. They also resent the camp’s co-option of the shoreline and the recent closure of the village’s route to the beach. They have been negotiating to use a building at the edge of the camp which used to be a primary school, and cannot understand why this is being blocked, especially given their urgent need for some kind of community building. Later, we are told of other effects of the presence of the army camp on the village: for security purposes the entire area is under close surveillance, and this has led to families who are perceived to cause problems in other areas being sent to live in the village (I presume by the Housing Executive); and roads out of Ballykinler have been kept in relatively poor repair and remain winding in order that during the years of conflict, anyone escaping after an attack on the camp would not be able to leave the village at high speed.
Anne-Marie has instituted the use of mobile spaces for community activities, with one touring caravan being used for meetings of the Forever Young pensioners’ group, and one being developed into a cinema by a group of young people. Later we again discuss the advantages and disadvantages of operating within temporary or mobile spaces. Andy points out that military camps and technological installations are relatively transient, given that it can be necessary to move them on quickly. I think about the resonances and dissonances between Anne-Marie’s small mobile spaces and the seemingly entrenched army camp nearby, whose residents insist it is there for the long term, but whose neighbours suspect it of being irresponsibly ephemeral. Later, Christoph describes the pensioners’ caravan – which resembles a living-room – as being ‘aggressively cosy’. He considers it special for its symbolic value and if art manages to translate the private into the collective and public, then the caravan spatialises this process. Anne-Marie has mentioned the practice common in Ballykinler (as in Northern Ireland as a whole) of discussing politically sensitive issues in very small groups in intimate and private spaces, which the caravan evokes. Juxtaposed against the imposing military architecture of the camp, the significance of this intimate, hand-finished space is further accentuated. Anne-Marie explains the symbolic meaning of the cinema caravan in relation to the prevalence of CCTV cameras in the village – operating a projector and viewing films, she hopes, might lead to groups of young people using cameras and making their own films, a way of resisting their construction as solely objects of surveillance, and acquiring agency.
Towards the end of the day, Peter wonders whether rural settings are particularly attractive for young artists today, and Fiona says that she thinks place in itself is important to artists, with the question of whether it is rural, urban or suburban being immaterial. Peter reiterates his interest in the disparity between cultural activities and the infrastructure which supports them in Northern Ireland, where these are more centralised and standardised, and the Republic of Ireland, where he sees more regional autonomy and innovation. I think the question of the spaces in which cultural activities take place, whether in urban or rural settings, has been revealed once again to be central.



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