The artists involved in Transforming Long Kesh/Maze dedicate their project entirely to the eponymous prison that operated from 1971 until 2000, now abandoned, where most of the political prisoners from Northern Ireland’s “Troubles” were held. The project—developed by artists Martin Krenn and Aisling O’Beirn, primarily in Belfast between 2016 and 2018—is conceptualised as a collaborative social sculpture.(1) Their art-based research, as well as various project presentations in the form of exhibitions, public conferences, lecture performances, and other related events, motivated me to look more closely at the reciprocal relations and emerging micronarratives brought forth during the project.(2) Specifically, this engages the complex networks of social interactions that the artists established through the unique grid of participatory strategies, research methods, intertwined structures, and contentious relations between the subjects, objects, and images involved in their art practice. Moreover, the emergence and intersection of certain microhistories enables and reveals direct and indirect intersubjective and dialogical relations through proximity, in the context of the current sensitive political conditions in Northern Ireland.(3)
The project was initially informed by publically announced local government plans (which have since failed) to transform the abandoned and dysfunctional building. These attempts mainly aimed to mollify memories of the troubled years preceding the Good Friday Agreement of 10 April 1998 (the basis for the current devolved system of government in Northern Ireland), such as the negative recollections of the victims of armed conflicts, the “hunger strikes” of 1981, and other events that were collectively nicknamed “The Troubles.”(4) Gradually the project shifted its focus towards the art produced by former inmates from Long Kesh/Maze.(5) After the closure of the prison, the last of these objects were gradually dispersed around Belfast and other places as the last of the eligible prisoners were released in 2000. The destiny of these objects, and the research of archaeologist Laura McAtackney on the material culture of Long Kesh/Maze more directly, motivated the artists to conceive a complex project structure that went far beyond the fate of the prison’s architectural remains.(6) Various artistic strategies, research methods, media, and materials of production and presentation (photography, postcards, posters, installations, collages), as well as discursive events, were employed to enable the development and completion of the project. However, the research and production process depended above all on the readiness of local communities to take to memory lane and work towards interweaving the many different layers of the project. The research into the historical and political context, the everyday life conditions in the prison, the materiality of the objects produced in the prison, the interaction among the members of different smaller communities and individuals in the present, eventually resulted in the production of original images of existing or new objects based on acquired knowledge about the materials used, and low-key, bricolage techniques—all assembled in a time-based social sculpture.
How can one, then, situate and contextualise the newly composed relations in the framework of ongoing theoretical, philosophical, and artistic discussions regarding representation and participation, and extrapolate the artistic research means and strategies employed by the artists to explore their ambitious vision and realise their goals. Some of my concrete queries pertinent to this context derive from the debate surrounding the complex relations between art and contemporary social reality, as well as questions surrounding the power and potential of art to transform existing societal and systemic structures. These questions move from simple enquiry about the general conditional context towards a more intricate deliberation on the possibility of fulfilling the project’s promise to engage with the unexpected (either positive or negative) implications of the dismantled border between art and society.
Contentious Memories and Spaces
Transforming Long Kesh/Maze is a bold and optimistic move from the outset, in both artistic and political terms. Although its title already confirms the artists’ belief in the possibility of effecting certain change, it also ironically resonates with the attempts of local government and communities to turn the abandoned remnants of the former prison’s buildings into something functional, even lucrative.
At first sight, the project’s attempts “to avoid negatively dwelling on the past or the reiteration of previously rehearsed and ideologically overdetermined narratives” seem very optimistic, almost impossible.(7) This is particularly so when taking into account the long history of armed and political conflict between the two major, radically polarised political positions of the divided local communities (Republican/Nationalist and Loyalist/Unionist). Furthermore, the differences between the major political opponents, and the many different implicated smaller parties, subgroups, and individual citizens—combined with ongoing tensions in contemporary divided communities and the gloomy prospect of Brexit—add ever more uncertainty to the political and cultural horizon of Belfast, and Northern Ireland as a whole. This context highlights the importance of art’s critical potential and agency to offer successful strategies for social intervention within existing relations.
The complex subject-object relation has never been adequately resolved in philosophy or theory. It is even more complicated when, in this context, one not only needs to address the issue of how objects are perceived but also how they are represented as images. Philosophers and theorists have long been puzzled by the inevitable conundrums instigated by such complex issues as visual perception, representation, and the reification of such relations. They have conceptualised or subscribed to various cognitive systems to understand subjects’ relations to the material world, and in relation to particular objects or images (e.g. idealism, realism, conceptualism, subjectivism, or speculative realism), but they have never reached agreement on any one of these relations.(8)
There has never been a consensus on one single and unified theoretical “recipe” to encompass all the potentialities of the relations between subjects, objects, and images, though they all agree on the extreme relevance of these relations and representation in the construction of subjectivity (feminist theories are almost entirely based on such critique). For example, according to Hegel, the “master” (subject) exemplifies “consciousness” that defines itself only in mutual relation to the slave’s consciousness – a process of mediated relation and reciprocal interdependence. Self-consciousness (and thus subjectivity) is not independent but dependent.(9) In other words, both master and slave in Hegel’s pair understand their own existence only in relation of recognition or “reconciliation” of the other.(10)
To put it in the terms of Hegel’s “master/slave” dialectical relation, the slave works positively with the objects, puts a specific form to them, so that while working on them he/she becomes aware of his/her independence. Self-consciousness is achieved when the slaves realise that they are not things, not objects, but subjects who can transform material nature.(11) In a similar vein, Homi Bhabha has discussed the master-slave dialectic in the context of Fanon’s postcolonial critique of cultural hegemony and domination.(12) I am far from suggesting that the prisoners’ art is linked to the Northern Ireland political struggle to the same extent that the Haitian revolution operated for Hegel (instrumental for the development of the “master-slave” dialectic), the African-American struggles for Fanon, or the struggle for Indian independence for Bhabha; however, some of the objects featured in Transforming Long Kesh/Maze could undeniably be interpreted in the light of postcolonial critique. The colonial relation in the background of the British-Irish conflict could also be interpreted through production, ownership, representation, and other aspects of prison art as a contentious cultural heritage.
The Art Object: Its Production and Representation
For many centuries objects remained largely unquestioned in the realm of artistic practice, as well as in aesthetics and art theory. The production and representation of objects were assumed, by default, to be the very requirements for calling any activity “fine art.” Moreover, the production of objects was predominantly accompanied by the production of images as the result of the perception and representation that obscured the relations between subjects and objects. Accordingly, the evaluation of the look and craftsmanship of objects and images was at the core of most definitions of art.
Walter Benjamin’s assumption in his celebrated essay “The Author as Producer” (1934) that the role of the author as a member of a society is to address class struggle—and must thus be rethought because s/he is part of an industry defined by modes of production—is indirectly linked with the shift from art-object production towards the incorporation of more “subjects” in contemporary art practices, as well as participants not trained or involved in arts in the long-run.(13) Perhaps Benjamin is the main “culprit” behind the ever-more-invigorated discussions about aesthetics and political engagement because according to him artistic quality and politics are inextricably linked and should not be separated.(14)
Guy Debord’s critique that ours is “a society where human relations are no longer directly experienced” gets an update in Nicolas Bourriaud’s more recent critique of representation and its mediation of the world, what he called “Relational Aesthetics.”(15) Bourriaud’s question of whether it is “still possible to generate relationships with the world, in a practical field of art-history traditionally earmarked for their ‘representation’” is a rhetorical one.(16) For him, the answer lies precisely in the direct relations that artists can establish through their creative activities as “social interstices.” Perhaps Bourriaud’s interpretation of works of art in Marxist terms, as well as his use of the term “interstices” as social spaces of human relations suggesting alternative “possibilities than those in effect within this system”—best explains the basis for his relational aesthetics.(17) However, it does not explain very well the potentials of these relational and participatory art practices to eventually change overall societal and systemic structures.
As such, we can specifically turn towards the dialogical and reciprocal relations that Martin Krenn and Aisling O’Beirn have induced between them, creating a pair of collaborators (rather than working individually); we can also attend to the relations amongst the artists and involved participants, amongst all active participants, and between them and the objects, images, and narratives that either pre-dated the project, or were created in the context of the research, exhibitions, and other related events. While the former were objects created by inmates of Long Kesh/Maze prison, the latter were made either by the artists or in collaboration with project participants (some of them also former inmates).
„Indeed, the artistic intervention created new relations and also changed the dynamic of existing relations. This, however, could be fruitfully challenged by the much more deterministic understanding of objects offered by the Austrian cultural theorist Nora Sternfeld, a conceptualisation of the obstacles towards a more relational understanding of the potential in The histories of violence and their corresponding conflicts have left traces—not only because they could not simply be eradicated, but mostly because the magic of the aura and of the fetish would be of no value whatsoever, if it were not valorised by rendering the traces of violence harmless. Following this theory, the things carry within themselves the conflicts in which they are embroiled, and through which they emerged. They are part of their sediment; they are petrified within the object.“(18)
This is not the same as saying that Sternfeld’s “object-effect” and the reference to speculative theory (closely linked to Bruno Latour’s concept of “factish”) has no value.(19) However, by denying any possibility for change to the petrified memory contained within objects, one becomes trapped in a vicious circle where the past determines both the present and future, something that Krenn and O’Beirn do not want to settle with, and which they have attempted to overcome from the very outset of their collaboration by contesting existing narratives and instigating contacts where previously there were none. In her well-known article “Arts of the Contact Zone,” Mary Louise Pratt defines “contact zones” as “[s]ocial spaces where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power, such as colonialism, slavery, or their aftermaths as they are lived out in many parts of the world today.”(20) At this point it is also worth referring to the work of James Clifford, who extended Pratt’s concept of contact zones to contexts of conflict, as well as artistic and museological contexts. In his view, “When museums are seen as contact zones, their organizing structure as a collection becomes an ongoing historical, political, moral relationship—a power-charged set of exchanges, of push and pull.”(21) Moreover, not only should one consider contact zones as completely open, public, and cultural spaces, but they can also include organisations and institutions with more defined profiles and structures.
Map of Relations
Relation, Artist with Artist
The long-term involvement of the artists in Transforming Long Kesh/Maze was a pre-requisite for the expected involvement of local participants. Arza Churchman has defined participation as “a process, not a one-time event.”(22) Moreover, in her introduction to a themed issue of the Journal of Architectural and Planning Research, dedicated entirely to participation, she writes about long-term involvement as a prerequisite to participation, or “decision-making by unelected, non-appointed citizens, or the incorporation of community members in planning and design. Without that decision-making element in participation, or if decisions are made by elected or appointed representatives, Churchmanwill not even call it ‘participation’ but rather ‘involvement’.”(23)
For Transforming Long Kesh/Maze, this is extremely relevant because of the time and continuous effort that participatory projects require on the part of the artists who initiate them. Needless to say, this is necessary for gaining the interest, trust, and dedication of participants who for the most part are not art professionals. Accordingly, the artists had the advantage that whilst O’Beirn is an Irish artist living and working in Belfast, Krenn is from Austria, having spent a lot of time in Belfast during the completion of his PhD at Ulster University before his collaboration with O’Beirn. This unique amalgamation of different cultural and national backgrounds enabled them to establish and maintain continuous contact with different local communities and gain profound knowledge of the history and current status of existing socio-political, economic, and professional art conditions, whilst also affording a kind of distance through a more neutral and international perspective where necessary.
Relations Between the Artists and Pre-existing Objects Made by the Former Long Kesh/Maze Prisoners
The participants who voluntarily consented to be involved in various capacities and thus to contribute to the project’s development and its eventual presentations—for example by providing relevant historical information about certain objects’ trajectories, by showing the artists existing objects that they owned or kept, or by telling some more personal stories—in the course of the project became researchers on their own. Intrigued by the project’s challenge they activated their personal and collective memories and thus created unique micronarrative units, which later became captions for the photographed images of the objects. Thus, artistic research became an instigator of participatory research and the reactivation of their memories, as well as the memories of the eventual audience members who may have had similar or different recollections of the same objects, positive or negative, clear or fuzzy (such as “Cat’s Whisker, Early 1980s,” a photograph of the home-made radio that served to secretly relay news to the prison wings, or “Emergency, Early 80s,” which depicts the internal prison telephone.)
Relations Between the Participants and the Newly Produced Objects
Not all participants were directly involved in the production of new objects, images, and names/titles for the captions of exhibited photographs. Those who engage in the co-production or reproduction of long-lost or still-existing objects, or of creating entirely new ones, take their involvement in a different direction which goes beyond repetition, re-iteration, and re-staging. The emphasis placed on co-production did not necessitate any artistic training, so as to skip any hierarchisation. The focus, on the contrary, was on collaborative and participatory research (executed both by artists and participants on an equal basis), as well as the material conditions, narratives, and affects that enabled the production of the objects made in the prison.
Relations Between the Artists and the Participants, on all Sides of The Troubles
The project began with a long process of establishing connections amongst different communities and organisations, as well as gaining the trust of various individuals who gradually showed their interest in participation (mainly after the Transforming Maze/Long Kesh conference that took place at the Metropolitan Arts Centre in Belfast on 25 April 2017). Perhaps at the beginning, the involvement and engagement of the activist organisations, community museums, and some independent citizens unconnected to either side of the conflict in a direct political way was somehow facilitated through the subtle and academic (read: more neutral) appeal of the project run by the artist duo, and because of the support of highly respected institutions, such as Ulster University and the EC Horizon 2020 Programme.
Relations of Re-staging, Re-appropriating, and Re-telling
The relations between subjects, objects, and images were established through artistic research methods and media such as audio interviews, photography, and caption naming. The artists refer to three specific methods: re-staging, re-appropriation, and re-telling. The selection of objects, the formulation of short accompanying statements, and finally naming the objects and producing the captions were all joint efforts, executed in the ad-hoc mobile photographic studio that was “re-built” for each session and venue.
The photographic re-staging of prison objects took place at several community museums, a community centre in Belfast, and O’Beirn’s studio (at PS2), with the participants present (who either made, owned, or just took care of the photographed objects). The “naming process” was particularly important and creative: participants were asked to give a title and date to each artefact that they offered or consented to be photographed. The label was always made on site and in their presence, with a small portable labelling machine, then placed on the same background as the object before being photographed, so that the title became integral to the final image.
To return briefly to the theoretical discussion in relation to this, it is interesting that Pratt, to a large extent, relied on variationist sociolinguistics and William Labov’s theory of “referential indeterminacy.”(24) These theories explore different ways in which people name things in their everyday life and various ordinary settings that resonate with the complex artistic concept of dialogical naming—and thus the co-production of the labels.
Re-appropriation refers to the project’s phase that relates to the ephemeral nature of prison objects—many of them have been lost, destroyed, or damaged. The lost objects remained only as mental images in the participants’ memory that was re-staged by re-appropriation. For example, in the process of re-making of the vanished objects and images, traditional materials and methods from the prison were mainly applied, following participants’ testimonies and instructions.
The artists’ collaboration with the 50+ Group and their host organisation Tar Anall (dedicated to the welfare of the former Republican prisoners and their families) resulted in yet another strategy: re-telling. Most importantly, various micronarratives and micro-relations were produced while the women members of the 50+ Group were making objects and simultaneously constructing a kind of meticulously embroidered network of relations.
The community museums that own or store objects created by former Long Kesh/Maze prisoners, which were approached by Krenn and O’Beirn, are somewhere between being completely open urban public spaces and conventional museums.(25) In fact, these spaces are perhaps close to what Clifford had in mind as contact zones (opposed to both conventional anthropological, ethnographic, historical, and other professional museums, as well as public spaces with conflicted past) due to their accessibility and hospitality; yet in some ways even they are confined by politically contentious relations and tensions inherited from the past.(26)
Future Relations Between the Objects and the Audience Members, and Relations Among Involved Subjects Mediated Through the Objects
Although the Transforming Long Kesh/Maze project is still ongoing, it already far exceeds many pre-existing troubled narratives from the past, attempting to overcome them through various research methods and strategies. However, many of the questions that emerged during the research process and various presentations remain unresolved. Before this project began, the objects, subjects, and mental images of them that existed were isolated, separate, and confined to the small premises of community museums or private homes, which according to McAtackney’s work on the material culture of Long Kesh/Maze (the initial, instrumental impetus for the artists), ultimately led to the idea of Belfast (and beyond) becoming a dispersed “museum” of the prison. With Transforming Long Kesh/Maze, the exhibitions of images of objects, postcards and posters (though not necessarily the objects themselves) serve as a temporary and mobile museum that does not aim for any form of monumentalisation.
In embracing the dispersed nature of the prison, the artists have produced an “interstice”—a social space where it’s possible to overcome attachments to negative memories, a place that prompts discursive and social change in an indirect but efficient way. Their subtle, long-term societal critique and attempts to disentangle and dismantle internalised power relations have unleashed the potential of such a project. This has been made possible through “excavating” and producing various oral microhistories related to new objects, as well as existing ones (that although having been made during confinement were not immersed only in negative and burdening narratives). As well, and moreover, this is a function of participation, collaboration, and co-production during both the research and production phases, which resulted in the creation of self-standing social networks somewhat unburdened by contentious and troubled historic memories.
1 Transforming Long Kesh/Maze was developed as an integral part of the three-year cross-disciplinary project Transmitting Contentious Cultural Heritages with the Arts: From Intervention to Co-Production (TRACES), for the EU Programme Horizon 2020.
2 This essay was written in the context of my position as Principal Investigator in the TRACES project and as a result of a research trip to Belfast (2–6 September 2017), direct communication with the artists (that continued via Skype and e-mail), and my presence during some of the work sessions and the Belfast Mural Tour with Belfast Black Cab Tours (8 September 2017).
3 The reference to “microhistory” stems from the difference between “macrohistory” and “microhistory” proposed in the 1970s in the works of the Italian historians Giovanni Levi, Carlo Ginzburg, and Simona Cerutti. According to this intervention in the historical methodology, the discipline was in crisis because while “macrohistory”—traditional history—was entirely dedicated only to generalised accounts of significant events and personalities from the past, to mega narratives, microhistory calls for a reverse perspective: for intensive and profound investigations that are to be focused on smaller, seemingly insignificant, units of research (shorter local events, smaller villages, everyday-life case studies, diaries, personal written testimonies, and oral histories).
4 For more information about the public discussions surrounding the prison’s future during the period when Krenn and O’Beirn conceptualised their project, see George Legg, “Redeveloping the Long Kesh/Maze Prison: Profiting from the Hunger Strikes?” Irish Times, 5 May 2016, irishtimes.com/culture/books/redeveloping-the-long-kesh-maze-prison-profiting-from-the-hunger-strikes-1.2636134.
5 The use of the term “prison art” is relative because in this context it encompasses found objects that were part of the prison infrastructure (such as the telephone in “Emergency Only, Early 1980s”), together with the hand-made objects that during the functioning years of the prison were produced by the now-former prisoners. However, the strict terminology is not relevant here because the project Transforming Long Kesh/Maze, to a large extent, relativises the distinction between professional and non-professional artists.
6 Laura McAtackney, An Archaeology of the Troubles: The Dark Heritage of Long Kesh/Maze Prison (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).
7 Martin Krenn and Aisling O’Beirn, during an informal discussion, PS² Belfast, September 2017. Recently, Declan Long extensively analysed the complexity of contemporary art production that was informed and heavily influenced by the long-term conflicts and tensions in Northern Ireland (e.g. various projects by Willie Doherty and Aisling O’Beirn). See Declan Long, Ghost-Haunted Land: Contemporary Art and Post-Troubles Northern Ireland (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2017).
8 Some examples include: the Hegelian master-slave dialectic prompted by the access and cognisance of the means of production, in G.W.F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), 119; George Berkeley’s subjective idealism (with which he denied the existence of any object beyond the field of perception); the Marxist theory of fetishisation of objects and his differentiation between the means, and technical and social relations of production; and Badiou’s “objectless subject,” in Alan Badiou, “On a Finally Objectless Subject,” in Who Comes After the Subject? ed. Eduardo Cadava, Peter Connor and Jean-Luc Nancy (New York and London: Routledge, 1991), 24–33.
9 “He is, therefore, not certain of existence-for-self as the truth of himself; on the contrary, his truth is in reality the inessential consciousness and the inessential action of the latter [the slave]”. Hegel, 1979: 117.
10 Hegel furthermore asserts that “self-consciousness exists in and for itself inasmuch, and only inasmuch as it exists in and for itself for another, i.e. inasmuch as it is acknowledged, only through the recognition by the other self- consciousness”. Ibid., 111.
11 See Suzana Milevska, “Master-Slave Dialectics in the Feminine,” in Performative Gestures, Political Moves, ed. Katja Kobolt and Lana Zdravković (Ljubljana: City of Women, Ljubljana and Red Athena University Press, 2014), 27–46.
12 Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture (New York and London: Routledge, 1994), 61.
13 Suzana Milevska, “Participatory Art: A Paradigm Shift from Objects to Subjects,” springerin 12, no. 2 (2006): 18–23, springerin.at/en/2006/2/partizipatorische-kunst.
14 Walter Benjamin, “The Author as Producer,” in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Part 2, 1931–1934,ed. Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland, and Gary Smith, trans. Rodney Livingstone et al. (Cambridge and London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999) 768–782.
15 Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle,trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (New York: Zone Books, 1995), 17; Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics (Paris: Les Presse Du Reel, 2002), 9.
16 Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, 9
17 Ibid., 16.
18 Nora Sternfeld, “The Object-Effect,” CuMMA Papers 19 (2016): 8, cummastudies.files.wordpress.com/2016/04/cumma-papers-19.pdf.
19 Ibid., 4.
20 Mary Louise Pratt, “Arts of the Contact Zone,” Profession 91 (1991): 33–34.
21 James Clifford, Routes, Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997), 192–193.
22 Arza Churchman, introduction to issue on “Public Participation around the World,” Journal of Architectural and Planning Research 29, no. 1 (Spring 2012): 1–4.
24 William Labov, “The Boundaries of Words and Their Meanings,” in News Ways of Analyzing Variation in English, ed. Charles-James Bailey and Roger Shuy (Washington DC: Georgetown University Press, 1973), 340–373.
25 The Eileen Hickey Irish Republican History Museum (the artists photographed objects in their collection), The Roddy McCorley Society Museum, The Andy Tyrie Interpretive Centre, and The 50+ Group (under the umbrella of Tar Anall), as well as various private collections (Simon Bridge, Phil Holland and David Stitt).
26 Clifford, Routes, Travel and Translation, 192–193.
This text was published in „Transforming Long Kesh / Maze“, Martin Krenn & Aisling O’Beirn (eds.), K. Verlag Berlin 256p. Engl. (2019), pp: 177-199