Ulster Garden Project 2017: An exchange between London~Derry and Dublin.
16 months, 436 potato-batteries, Cultivating Peace .
I sought to build a transformative, storytelling narrative that reflects on Irish history as inspiration and similarly signals the reality of what PEACE is. It is, a time-consuming process of preparing the right ground, cultivating the right seeds, relying on the generosity of people and trusting the outcome.
In 2016 and 2017 I visited Dublin, Belfast and Derry to research and gain more understanding on the Northern Irish conflict. It was the beginning of a process to create an artwork influenced by contemporary political issues in Northern Ireland and to understand its colonial past.
I recognised that it could be the starting point for a series of new artistic metaphors in other conflict areas and visited Cyprus during the same year. However, I decided to commit to spending at least two months in Derry. It had become known worldwide on account of ‘The Troubles’, a place with strong sectarian divisions, between two rival communities. Both have diverse perspectives and competing ideas about identity and belonging, and two antagonistic visions of political aspiration that both claiming the constitutional status of Northern Ireland. These antagonistic views and its political systems are still very much represented in the current Northern Ireland political arena and often promoted through the use of symbolic narratives demonstrated in public spaces that reinforce the depth of division.
For me, it is almost impossible to understand the Northern Ireland conflict without looking at its colonial past and the new order that was merging in Europe out of the crisis of medieval feudalism from the late 15th Century. Its economic base was a more productive and commercialised agriculture, bringing a rising population, improved communications, expanding trade and commerce and the renewed penetration of Europe’s peripheral regions. In many ways this is not dissimilar with the globalised trading world that we are now experiencing.
I also reflected on a shared history of migration. Following the Great Irish Famine between 1845-51 and in Scotland the Great Highland Famine in 1840 there was a wave of emigration from both countries as a result of failed potato crops. Their main food source was the humble potato that transformed in to the staple food of the poor and is embedded in the history of migration between the Americas, Ireland, Scotland and Britain. These important historical contexts, food, migration and peace building informed the creation of the artwork ‘THIS SPACE IS FOR THE CULTIVATION OF PEACE’.
Fundamental to all these now is that this shared history of migration is reflected in the global migration crisis that we have been witnessing across Europe since 2015. Europe is now at a time when the current dilution of power produced by globalisation combined with classic balance-of-power politics and organised interdependence all have a similar effect to those of colonial empires in the past.
In forming a working relationship with an autonomous organisation like Learmount Community Development Centre at Park Village in Co’Derry I was completely unaware of its former existence as a Plantation or its connections to Lord Beresford and Dublin. The first public installation of the Ulster Garden Project powered by potatoes grown in Dublin and Co’Derry does not emphasise ethnicity or differences but refocus on collectivity without the burden of historical explanations but the potential of transformation. From humble potato to power source.
It’s my understanding that in a deeply divided society such as Northern Ireland, ethno-nationalism need not be the driving force behind political change and outcome. Conventional wisdom suggests that there is a strong causal relationship between ethno-nationalism and political conflict. For example, Donald Horowitz opened his influential Ethnic Groups in Conflict with the claim that,
‘Ethnicity is at the center of politics in not only in country after country, and is a potent source of challenges to the cohesion of states and of international tension’
Cillian Mc Grattan, argues that the narratives of ethnic antagonism in Northern Ireland is itself highly political and the use of terms such as ‘lessons’, ‘groups’ and ‘ethno-nationalism’ not only avoids the empirical facts, but also upholds a series of assumptions about whose voice should be heard and whose can be ignored. He describes how segregationists believe that the conflict is best managed through segregation of the communal groups and the consolidation into the pillars on which elites can build a settlement. Integrationists, on the other hand support the Good Friday Agreement because they believe that power-sharing will lead to the integration of the communal groups and that will consolidate peace in Northern Ireland.
Mc Grattan describes this system of relationships with four main interlocking and mutually reinforcing levels: a set of socio-cultural and ideological differences; a structure of dominance, dependence and inequality and the tendency towards communal polarisation. This structure of dominance was reproduced in the newly founded Northern Ireland and still exists today.
Richmond Barracks is a potent reminder of the complexity of human relationships and Ireland’s past and future during its Decade of Commemorations and in the context of Brexit negotiations. The Barracks housed all British regiments that came to Ireland from DATE XXX and housed the Court Martials of 1916. It is the site where specific government decisions encouraged political entrenchment and communal polarisation, a threat to be controlled. The wider site housed the first Catholic graveyard alsongside a military barracks that transformed from the 1960’s to the 2000’s with contested forms of social housing models reflected in a series of social and economic crises and underpinned by increased poverty and increased heroin use.
Dependency and dominance remains across Europe. At this moment in time the UK is locked into Brexit negotiations which will have a further effect on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU and in Derry 70% of the inhabitants are employed in the public service that is for the most part financially dependent on Britain and the EU.
My inspiration and commitment to this artistic project was based on the tensions in Europe which resurfaces perennially in different guises between universal, national and international values in contrast to European identity and the conflicts between national and supernational legal traditions, between public sentiment in one state and largely shared views in the rest of Europe.
This project is realised with the help of Common Ground, Learmount Community Development Group, The Conservation Volunteers London~Derry, Dublin City Council, The Arts Council of Ireland,Richmond Barracks, Mondriaan Fund