Luxury, Peace and Photography in Northern Ireland

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    Luxury, Peace and Photography in Northern IrelandColin GrahamPublished online: 24 Aug 2009.

    To cite this article: Colin Graham (2009) Luxury, Peace and Photography in Northern Ireland, Visual Culture in Britain,10:2, 139-154, DOI: 10.1080/14714780902925077

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  • Colin Graham

    Luxury, Peace and Photography in NorthernIreland

    At the beginning of his biography of Ian Paisley, Ed Moloney describes avisit by Paisley, then First Minister of Northern Ireland, and MartinMcGuinness, Deputy First Minister, to New York in December 2007when they were photographed jointly bringing down the ceremonialgavel to start the days proceedings in the New York Stock Exchange.1

    Moloney comments that:

    to those unschooled in Wall Streets ways [it might have appeared that] they had something todo with that days trading session . . . [but] in fact the photo was staged, and had been taken 90minutes before the stock exchange opened for business.2

    This supreme moment of photo-opportunism means that this image ofPaisley and McGuinness is really more like a tourists souvenir than therecord of a political event. It is the equivalent in global politics of havingyour photograph taken with Mickey Mouse at Disneyland, or MichaelJackson in Madame Tussauds and it inadvertently captures the appar-ently important, but actually subservient and insignificant, role thatIreland, and the Northern Irish conflict, have in the immeasurably widerpolitical economy of the United States. Moloney goes on to describe thejoint opening of the NASDAQ (the acronym by which the NationalAssociation of Security Dealers Automatic Quotation System is betterknown) by Paisley and McGuinness two days later. This, Moloney writes:

    was a much more mundane affair, although just as contrived. Staged in a Times Square TVstudio in front of a camera and a studio populated only by technicians, to the untutored eye itseemed as if an audience of eager brokers stood just yards away, watching and itching for thesignal to start another day of moneymaking. In fact the NASDAQ has no floor and deals aredone via anonymous computers. DUP and IRA dissidents could be forgiven for seeing in bothevents a metaphor for all the political artfulness and sleight of hand that made the two menspartnership possible.3

    While ex-combatants might rage against the dual Lundyism4 (as politicaltreachery tends to be labelled in Northern Ireland) of the (now) ex-FirstMinister5 and his Deputy, there was an inevitability to this contrivance, inwhich men symbolizing the ideological past enter the hollow post-politicalworld that the Peace Process has been supposed to usher in and in whichthe image is it own substance.

    The half-truths of these press photographs record very precisely theunderlying anxiety of the participants in this venture, a desire for it to beseen that real economic dividends flow from their political compromisesso that the new political consensus is maintained. As photographs they

    Visual Culture in Britain ISSN 1471-4787 print/ISSN 1941-8361 online# 2009 Taylor & Francis http://www.informaworld.com

    DOI: 10.1080/14714780902925077

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  • inadvertently capture both the political trajectory of the new NorthernIreland (at least, at the moment when they were taken) and the widerphoto-journalistic frisson that has accompanied the Peace Process, suchthat the dominant media image of the PaisleyMcGuinness era drew onthe feel-good factor of both mens appearance side by side, and the atten-dant smoothing away of the historical ironies that their cohabitation ingovernment always recalled. A more local example of the ways in whichtheir tandem existence was made emblematic of the internecine, trans-formed to the normalized global experience, can be seen in the pressphotographs of their joint opening of the IKEA store in east Belfast, andespecially the shots of Paisley and McGuinness seated together on an IKEAsofa with the IKEA logo Home is the most important place in the worldhovering, with no sense of its own resonance, on the wall behind them.6

    Post-Peace Process Northern Ireland is visualized, for itself, its sponsorsin other governments, and a wider world, through images that stress thenormalization that occurs through the provinces joining of the economicsystem by which the rest of the world lives, and at the same time furthereroding its regrettable past. Such questionable trajectories, embedded inpopular visual media, have become the replacements for a previous gen-eration of photo-journalistic conventions concerning Northern Irelandfrom the period of the Troubles, and, like their predecessors, they neces-sarily collapse complexity into an unthinking visual shorthand.

    This article discusses recent exhibitions by Victor Sloan and JohnDuncan and the way in which they react to the new economic imperativesof Peace Process Northern Ireland. Both Sloan and Duncan ground theirnewer work in the aesthetic they have individually developed over pre-vious years, and in the wider context of Northern Irish photographic andvisual responses to the Troubles and the aftermath of the Troubles. Yet,this essay suggests, the most recent unfolding of the Peace Process, whichsees the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein in government togetherfor the first time, means that the turn to normal issues of governanceraises the deeply problematic question of what a normal NorthernIreland would look like. Sloan and Duncan separately produce work thatholds in tension the memory of the past and the rhetoric of the politicalfuture, a rhetoric that tends to replace the political with the economic.Sloans Luxus and Duncans Bonfires differently configure this moment,when the past seems to meet the future.

    In as much as a tradition, or at least a discernible set of aestheticconventions, has been established over at least two overlapping genera-tions of photographers in Northern Ireland, there was a common, reactivesource for a version of art photography that made sense of itself through itsambivalent relationship to photo-journalism. Photographers such asVictor Sloan, Paul Seawright and Willie Doherty, amongst others, differentas they are, can be understood as having constructed a photographicpractice that consciously counteracted photo-journalisms misrepresenta-tion, or hyper-representation, of Northern Ireland through stereotypicalTroubles imagery. The kind of art photography that emerged in NorthernIreland during the 1980s, in particular, was in part dependent on a photo-journalistic, or more accurately documentary mode (in that it also

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  • photographed the North as a site of conflict), but simultaneously set itselfagainst the easy shock tactics of transient photo-journalism by taking alonger, or more detailed, or implicated look at the Troubles and the societywhich they produced. The years of the Peace Process have seen the litheshifting of photographers modes, themes and techniques, responding tothe uncertainty of the Process by, for example, thinking about the ways inwhich the past was being archived as a way of preparing for the future, orlooking at the border as the last, anomalous outpost of the Troubles.7

    With the imagery of the Troubles apparently assigned to mere nostalgia,and the Peace Process having entered a new stage of governance, howmight we respond to the new imagery of political consensus that hasrapidly replaced the hoary old images of the Troubled North? On thesurface, this new iconography is a continual source of wonder for thosewho marvel at the political amnesia encapsulated in the political andphotographic bringing together of Paisley and McGuinness. But the phan-tasmal nature of the gavel-banging economics here is more a sign ofpolitical anaemia (brought on by a certain irony deficiency). The nervouslycomic uncanniness of Paisley and McGuinness together, which was cap-tured in so many press photographs, seems dependent on the irreconcil-ability of their past and present positions and that paradox is solved, inimage and ideology, by the no-less-surprising common cause provided byinternational finance and the ideology of entrepreneurialism. The twospecific photographic projects discussed in this essay demonstrate thatthere is less of a contradiction than there might first appear to be in thatwondrous overwriting of the past by the present. This superficial disjunc-tion, which glazes the surface of those images of the opening of the NewYork Stock Exchange and the NASDAQ, perhaps even before we appre-ciated their stagedness, is underwritten by a clearly signalled future thathas been in the making throughout the Peace Process. It is a future investedin the virtual ebb and flow of the NASDAQ, and in which the atavism ofsectarian conflict serves as the silent, but dependent, counterpoint to itsseeming opposite, the potential, post-political, economically focusedNorthern Ireland.

    Managing the peace

    The attempt to forge an economic dividend out of the reconstitution of theAssembly government has been a fragile one, with few solid achieve-ments. In April 2008 a newly formed company, Emerald InfrastructureDevelopment Fund LP, announced that it is to invest $150 million inNorthern Ireland. The money is derived from the pension funds of NewYork public workers (such as firefighters) and will be directed towardsventures in property, roads and renewable energy projects. DavidSimpson, Democratic Unionist Party MP for Upper Bann, showed thatthe Norths political parties have absorbed the language as well as theiconography of Wall Street when he said that the Emerald Infrastructurecapital would help Northern Ireland PLC achieve its full and maximumpotential in a competitive global marketplace,8 implying that the solutionto the national question is a share issue, floating the province on an

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  • international stock exchange. Simpsons revealing assumption is thatthinking in business terms will be the seed out of which a new polity willgrow. Similarly, in May 2008 the advertising for the US-Northern IrelandInvestment Conference, organized by Invest Northern Ireland, noted that:The new, stable Northern Ireland is open for business9 - again replayingthat historical shift from old to new, from Northern Ireland in conflict toNorthern Ireland in business. The photographic projects by Victor Sloanand John Duncan, discussed below, question the neo-liberal teleologyupon which this thinking relies.

    If economic regeneration is to be the dynamo for normality, then there ismuch to do. The 2003 balance of trade between Northern Ireland and the restof the world was 10.3 billion.10 Northern Irish workers work the longestaverage hours per week in the United Kingdom and yet are among the leastproductive.11 Despite having low business costs and a relatively skilled andeducated workforce, Northern Ireland ranks lowest on the CompetitiveSub-Index compiled by the Norths Department of Enterprise, Trade andInvestment in 2007.

    There are obvious practical reasons why events such as thePaisley-McGuinness New York trip, the Emerald investment and theMay 2008 investment conference have become the focus of the adminis-tration, although the discourse surrounding this search for an economicpay-off runs deeper than an interest in job and wealth creation, since itcreates a politics fervent in its fetishization of the concepts of stability andpeace for business as the target of new governance in the North. DavidSimpson, in belatedly echoing the Blairite rhetoric of UK PLC,12 catcheson to a profound proposition at the heart of the new global economics intowhich Northern Ireland is casting itself. The idea that the new, stableNorthern Ireland is open for business reveals that the new political gov-ernance in Northern Ireland was achieved via the implementation of thevery structures of global capitalism. It is effectively this modelling ofnegotiation on corporatism, which leads naturally to the notion ofNorthern Ireland PLC.

    In his book The Shield of Achilles, Philip Bobbit embarks on a dystopianreverie on future global governance by what he calls market-states, whichare successful because they embed corporate structures and businessleadership into their governance. Bobbitts vision is kick-started by busi-ness leadership guru Joseph Jaworski who claimed in 2004 (as quoted byBobbit):

    Today . . . there is only one entity whose effort to create stability in the world matches its self-interest. That entity is a corporation acting globally. In the increasingly borderless worldcreated by the microchip, politicians and bureaucrats will not be the ones to turn to forguidance. It is in the nature of politicians and bureaucrats to serve one country. But globalcorporations can only do business in a peaceful and stable world.13

    The interweaving of peace, capital and governance here surpasses aninterest in eroding the political meaning of borders and nation-states.Instead it imagines rendering an old politics redundant via an ethos andpractice of business as governance. This helps us see anew the emergenceof Northern Ireland PLC. The negotiations which led to the Good Friday

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  • Agreement were famously based on Arend Lijpharts notion of consocia-tionalism, and celebrated as such by political scientists as a triumph ofpragmatism over ideology.14 More recently, some of those political scien-tists sceptical about the basis of consociationalism have sounded persua-sive. Rick Wilford and Robin Wilson, for example, have noted the erosionof the philosophical foundation of consociationalism and that its notionof identity as singular, pre-given and unchanging has given way to arecognition that it is complex, relational and plastic,15 a critique thatembodies a disappointed non-sectarian or anti-sectarian politics, andoften parallels a wariness of the Northern Ireland Assemblys institutionalinsistence on the official designation of all its elected members as unionistor nationalist.

    Lijphart makes clear that consensual democracy (as opposed to theWestminster model) is, in his view, not only a way of solving ethnicconflict but also an economic thesis, one that can best secure low inflation,fewer strikes and thus economic growth.16 The cabinet table in theAssembly may, then, be consensual democracy in action, solving, or atleast managing, ethnic tension, but, following consocializationisms truedriving force, it spends most of its energy now on the economic future itsunderlying model is a neoliberal notion of the effectiveness of the board-room, and its politics are managerial rather than ideological.

    The two photographic projects discussed below offer no answers, director otherwise, to the questions raised by the Northern Ireland PLCs head-long rush towards the global marketplace, nor do they imply that photo-graphy is necessarily a radical or even political space in which suchquestions could be raised. They do, however, deal with the structuresand effects of the erasure of the ideological mess of history by the cleansingpower of entrepreneurialisms fetish of progress, and with the leftovers inthis process. The exhibitions by Victor Sloan and John Duncan can beviewed as forms of visual critique demonstrating that photography(through its documentary facility, its partial and subjective eye, and itsability to remind us about what we forget to see) can understand thespecificities of space and time, and the flows of power that alter theirperception. Moreover, such perception is at times prescient as well asperceptive. In John Duncans series of photographs entitled, with irony,Boom Town, the iconic IKEA sofa, with its domesticated, product-endor-sing ex-antagonists, can be seen in a previous state of dereliction. InDuncans image a brown velour sofa sits in an abandoned and graffiti-covered living room, positioned so that it faces a hole in the wall where thetelevision might be.17 It is the shift from this reality to the perception ofurban and social renewal, brought on by the peace process, whichDuncans Bonfires and Sloans Luxus contemplate in different ways.

    Luxus

    Sloans Luxus and Duncans Bonfires reveal a change of direction in theinterests of both photographers. Sloans work has long been associatedwith a complex, interventionist visualization of the imagery of theTroubles. In Luxus he takes a more tangential approach to cultural and

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  • socio-economic change in post-conflict society, and his photographic tech-niques subtly alter to reflect his new subject matter and direction. Duncan,meanwhile, has created a body of work that catalogues contemporaryurban change in Belfast as it has developed through the Peace Process,yet his latest work, an archive of bonfire sites around Belfast, reverts to anarchaic, atavistic Belfast. These reversals of interest, I suggest, combine toimply that the temporal division of a Troubled and a Peaceful NorthernIreland is a fantasy which covers a complex interweaving of economicchange in the governance that has arisen out of the Peace Process.

    Victor Sloans Luxus was commissioned and first shown in theMillennium Court Arts Centre in Portadown in 2007. The exhibition wasaccompanied by a catalogue with an essay by Glenn Patterson.18 Luxus,Latin for luxury, is also the name of a bar in Berlin, and the bar is the focusof his exhibition. Sloans collaboration with Patterson celebrates the recal-citrant ironies of Luxus, and its owners refusal to blow with the prevailingwinds of change in Germany. Before the fall of the Berlin wall, Luxus was asub-cultural refuge in the GDR. Since reunification, it has remained thesame dowdy, unreconstituted remnant of a butchers shop, while allaround it luxury has sprung up in the form of new apartment living.

    In his penultimate paragraph Patterson writes:

    The Owner doesnt tell me that he was jailed under the old regime for refusing to work. Hedoesnt tell me either what he thinks looking past his small constellation of lights at the luxuryapartments across the way, but I think I can guess.

    The opposite of all that went before is not this.19

    Luxus, in Sloans images and Pattersons words, draws and plays with acomparison between post-Communist Berlin and post-Ceasefire NorthernIreland. The collaboration focuses on the reduced possibilities for dissentin a post-conflict society, in which division and history are replaced byapparent consensus and progress, and sees that contracting language forcritique as overwhelmed by development, wealth and the rush of newcapital into the urban scene. Northern Ireland after the Good FridayAgreement and Berlin after the fall of the Wall, share a melancholicacceptance of an anodyne post-conflict culture. And the assertion thatwhat came before was not the opposite of this expresses, amongst otherthings, the strangulation that comes about from an agreement that pastconflict should be, if not forgotten, then at least not remembered.

    Victor Sloan has been one of Northern Irelands leading art photogra-phers since the early 1980s, well known for his signature method of mark-ing, scoring and altering his negatives and prints, and for his NorthernIrish subject matter (particularly in his images of loyalist protests in themid-1980s), which he treats with a mixture of tenderness and anger.20 Inthe Luxus exhibition Sloan, for the first time, uses digital photography. Thisswitch in technology is a signal in itself that the aesthetic vision of theseimages is intent on registering change and newness. In some of the imagesthe markings that were once Sloans physical interventions in the materi-ality of the developing and printing processes are now subtly reflected inthe more ghostly evidence that time appears to leave on materials; for

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  • example, the (digitally enhanced) cracking in the veneer on a wall tilecreates a paradox to which the exhibition returns in several ways, suggest-ing a deliberately failed impulse to add historical depth and intensity, evenauthenticity, to the already and evidentially aged. The exhibition tracksexactly this desire to understand historical traces and, in the face of acontemporaneity that seems intent on effacing history, the extendedcracking in the tile registers a counter-reaction, a need to remember themarkings of history and to work against their erasure. The irony, not lostbut rather central to the work, is that to remember, not forget, history is tobe seen to overplay its certainties. Thus the crack in the tile that Sloanenlarges and extends is a sign of the neurosis that seems the only reactionof those who cannot forget as quickly as the emerging consensus wouldlike them to.

    The large size of the images in Luxus means that their pixilation is visibleand grainy, creating a surface akin to the effects that Sloan previouslyachieved manually. Another characteristic of his work, a combinationof light sources as a focal point and an off-centring of these focal points(as seen in his much earlier Moving Windows series, for example) issimilarly repeated, transformed, and eerily enhanced, and in some images,such as Untitled V, placed on the uppermost edge of the frame. Again theeffects here are not just technical. The out-of-kilter and off-centre point ofview reflects an attitude in the entire exhibition, one that looks back tothose earlier Sloan images and updates them, but also one in which theidea of being decentred is a crucial sign for the viewer of how to read thesephotographs of a place that is itself tangentially out of history.

    The interiors in Luxus (those of the inside of the bar, which make up thefirst part of the exhibition) play on visual reminders of the bars history as a(kosher) butchers shop and so create a mystery full of an historicallylayered and menacing violence and heightened by the way the imagesare lit and the lighting is altered (Figure 1). Luxus begins then with allu-sions to something murderous, to a society deracinated over time, and yetthe cumulative effect will be to praise the persistence of Luxus, and tocherish its untimeliness.

    The second part of the exhibition is entitled Luxury and this series ofimages takes the same creepy deathliness outside into the surroundingareas. The buildings around the bar have been gentrified, and re-zoned,and yet Luxus (the bar) remains a stone in the midst of all, a layeredversion of history that refuses to change and thus represents an anachron-ism which observes the shiny teleologies of the contemporary that unfoldaround it. The outdoor images in the Luxury section show the regenera-tion of this part of east Berlin. Their cleverness is that in repeating thecolour palette from the first half of the show in the midst of predominantdarkness, they allow the atmosphere of the bar to spill out into the street, sothat the new is dependent on and repeats the dowdiness of the oldwithout knowing it and while shunning it. In Sloans vision, luxury,essentially a style of modern living, is intended as the answer to the weightof history, but becomes instead redolent with melancholia and atomiza-tion. Luxury/luxus thus becomes a tag that holds together the old and thenew. The silhouetted figure at the window of an apartment (Untitled II

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  • [Luxury]) is blurred and indistinct (Figure 2). The light source from theroom inside is as yellowed and indistinct as that of the earlier image of thetoilet in Luxus, a photograph in which the light source appears to bedigitally enhanced. The figure at the window in Untitled II [Luxury] standsindistinct and alone, while the spindly branches of a tree mark the outerwall of the building, a visual reminder of the cracks in the tiles in Luxus.Indeed both the cracks and the often unsourced but overwhelming lightthat recur in both sets of photographs hint at metaphors that might mergeto imply enlightenment and knowledge achieved through the disintegra-tion of what appears to be solid and permanent, as if the historical truth inthese images, and of this city, is ready to emerge in glimpses to theobservant viewer in this way, the figure at the window seems also to belooking for something as much as looking at something.

    A key image in this second part of the exhibition (Untitled III [Luxury]) isof a round, multi-storeyed building formerly used by the Stasi and now,with obvious symbolism, refurbished as an apartment block. Here too thetwilit cityscape is rendered in ochre and black. Following on thematicallyfrom the preceding image, here the trees towards the foreground chaoti-cally mark the surface of the photograph and appear to emanate from thestructure of the building. So, while in Sloans early work the energy ofhistory happening, and Sloans reaction to it, is seen in his own markings,here the slowly building references to lines that score the surface isembedded in the photograph and reaches an appropriate crescendoaround this building. Along with these shadowy emanations, the buildingin Untitled III [Luxury] repeats the yellow interior backlighting of Untitled II[Luxury], which here, given the murky history of the building and com-bined with the drive-by effect of blurred focus, looks like a neo-gothic

    Figure 1. Victor Sloan,Untitled I (Luxus), 2006,Lambdachrome Print,courtesy of the artist.

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  • haunting of the present, as if the camera can capture traces of the past in theimage of the present.

    In the section of his Minima Moralia labelled Auction, TheodorAdorno considers the phenomenon of luxury, first as a social show-ing-off, a visible sign of flaunted wealth and leisure time. Adorno sug-gests, however, that what begins as luxury is inevitably absorbed intomass culture. Then the remnants of luxury start to look like junk. Hisassertion is that luxury becomes paradoxically practical; its reason forbeing, an idolization or fetishization of pure spending power, is bound toits unreason, its opposite, usefulness. Luxury, intended to show thatthose who have it are now out of their original class, is disseminated inorder to perpetuate itself, and the luxurious seeps back into the class fromwhich it was separated. Luxury, becoming more widespread, now vio-lently turns against itself in a peculiar form of class conflict; luxury,Adorno writes, becomes brutality, and is inherently a violence done tothe past.21 This prescient analysis of contemporary consumerism and latecapitalisms dependence on a dialectic of unreason and violent reason isthe very dynamic that subtly emerges, analogously, in Sloans Luxus, andthe two overlapping parts of his exhibition. Luxus observes the emer-gence of luxury and its continuing, self-denied dependence on its nar-rative of separation from the past, which it regards as archaic andoutmoded. In doing so, Sloans exhibition finds a way of commentingon both Berlins experiences after the fall of the Wall and, by way ofunderstated analogy, Northern Irelands post-Ceasefire regeneration.Luxus constructs a poised space aware that it is as dangerously senti-mental to valorize the past as it is to be blindly uncritical in celebratingonly the present. It is in the unknowable alternative places that Luxuslooks for understanding, and finds that only in the barely articulated

    Figure 2. Victor Sloan,Untitled II (Luxury), 2006,Lambdachrome Print,courtesy of the artist.

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  • relationship between the rejected past and the consuming present is therethe potential for seeing history at work under the new economics of style.Sloans Luxus arguably sees his work undertake a change too, in bothformat and in subject matter. This alteration registers a state of flux inhistory (directly in Berlin, indirectly in Northern Ireland), yet Sloansaesthetic is not altered by this historical change instead it develops,and that continuity with his earlier Troubles work, and work undertakenmainly, although not exclusively, in Northern Ireland, provides part ofthe strength of Luxus, its capacity for seeing change and continuitytogether, in process and in conflict.

    Bonfires

    John Duncans 2008 exhibition Bonfires22 turns towards the remnants of theconflict in the North. He shares with Sloan an interest in exposing thefallacy of the death of history, while charting the forces that purport toconfirm historys demise. And, like Sloans Luxus, Duncans Bonfires mapsout the apparent expiration of the archaic by setting it against the empti-ness of the promise of the new, as a redeveloped urban (and cultural)landscape vies for dominance with the visual signifiers of the Troubles,and of sectarianism.

    Duncans previous work, such as Boom Town and Trees fromGermany,23 is notable for the way in which it interrogates the promisesof the new in Peace Process Northern Ireland. For him to photographEleventh Night bonfires then might look, initially, to be a retrogradestep. Yet it is the persistence of these signs of the supposedly super-seded that provides the tension in Duncans images. These bonfires,celebrating the night before the Twelfth of July (the annual commem-oration of the victory of King William over King James in 1690), are adouble throwback. They carry an aura of a pre-Partitioned, urbanizingUlster, in which the remnants of a rural tradition have surviveddisingenuously in the life of a city. In the current moment, they arean out-of-sorts relic of a Troubles mentality, giving them a futurewhich may be as out-of-joint with the times as the Twelfth that theyprecede. The shapes that Eleventh Night bonfires throw in JohnDuncans photographs suggest a multitude of possibilities, eachtempting a conclusion about why they are made at all. There arechaotic forms with no discernible pattern, there are aggressivelysquat and environmentally unfriendly stacks of pallets and tyres,there are sculptural attempts to reach the sky and rise above theurban and suburban skylines. They all want to be noticed, someinsistently, some despite being crowded out by the regeneratingcontemporary.

    Recent anthropologists find that the only way to countenance the appar-ent primitivism of bonfires is to see them as the receding evidence of a onceuniversal, J.G. Frazer-like language of fire, marking the turning points ofthe calendar. Largescale, fire-based public events are a staple feature oftraditional celebratory life in Northern Ireland, writes Jack Santino, in1996, without a hint of irony.24 Implicit in this impulse to generalize,

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  • mythologize and dehistoricize is a decent but myopic belief that a commonhumanity can be seen in shadow form behind the worst excesses of what isthen understood as a modern version of tribalism. But, whatever theirorigin, Eleventh Night bonfires now tend to be regarded as either a mis-understood expression of Loyalist identity25 or, as journalist FionnualaOConnor puts it, a kind of communal sanction for anti-socialbehaviour.26

    Media photographs of the July bonfires in Northern Ireland occupy twopredominant categories. The burning fires provided a handy stereotypefor news reportage aimed at viewers and readers outside NorthernIreland, as if they were the epitome of a society inclined to violence.Meanwhile, before the 1970s The Belfast Telegraph, a Unionist paper thatmight be expected to provide the most prominent coverage of the events ofthe July 11 and 12 bonfires and marches, carried no photographs and littlereporting on the bonfires, concentrating instead on the Orange Ordersmarches on the Twelfth. The Telegraph has long been associated withmainstream and, therefore, middle-class unionism, and the bonfires,with all their attendant drunkenness and potential for violence, havelargely been a phenomenon of working-class loyalism. With the outbreakof the Troubles, however, the Telegraph began to use images of the buildingof the bonfires, mainly showing children dragging sofas or other discardeddetritus through the streets to bonfire sites. Such images implied a com-munality and solidarity in Unionism, and as such reflected the beginningsof a particular kind of cross-class siege mentality in Unionism in the earlyyears of the Troubles (one that has unravelled, as Duncans images reveal,in the years of the Peace Process and devolution). John Duncans photo-graphs turn the bonfires into sculptural question marks. They are imagesthat document a cultural phenomenon and wonder about its future. Thepallets and tyres that dominate the better bonfires suggest an alteredsocial landscape in which scrap may be less available and in whichbeing seen (locally, politically) has a real importance. In some of thephotographs it is even tempting to aestheticize the bonfires as architecturalresponses to derelict social spaces the chaos created by the Ballywalterbonfire builders could be the set of Becketts Breath.27 The Shore Roadbonfire sits precipitously on the pavement, up against a wall and railingsthat politely mark off public from private space. Bonfires in Belfast tradi-tionally took priority in urban loyalist areas, often being built in the middleof streets or at intersections. The bourgeoisification of public space, alongwith the redevelopment of working-class areas, means that the bonfires, asseen in Duncans images, must now inhabit wasteland or ever-decreasingareas of communal space (Figure 3). The Shore Road bonfire is perhaps inthe most visually pressurized of spaces of any in the series. Blocking thefootpath and edging on to the road, it seems to be spatially overwhelmed.The red brick and blue railings against which it rests are echoed on theother side of the road by those that enclose the Lidl car park, and thedouble geometry of the image (reinforced by the positioning of the twotraffic bollards in the foreground) is a condensation of Duncans interests.

    Duncans photographs reverse anthropologys backward glance, whichwants to understand bonfires as diachronically inevitable. Instead these

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  • are anachronistically threatened (and threatening). The confrontationbetween Days Hotel (a global brand largely dependent on urban tourismand short-stay business trips), the looming frontline fortification of thenew Belfast, and the Sandy Row bonfire is a raw representation ofthe unknown place which the bonfires, and all they stand for, will havein the future Northern Ireland.

    The Tates Avenue bonfire has appeared in Duncans work previously.South Studios, Tates [sic] Avenue, from Trees from Germany, shows the viewfrom the large communal, open-air area several storeys up in the SouthSide Studios apartment complex (Figure 4).28 This relatively exclusivedevelopment controversially took place in the Tates Avenue/Villagearea of Belfast, which is traditionally working class and loyalist. In Treesfrom Germany, the bonfire intrudes over the balcony, interrupting the viewof the mountains and reminding the Studios inhabitants of those who livein the terraced houses that the balcony blocks out. In Tates Avenue, Belfast,2004, from Bonfires, the bonfire is central to the image. It sits (again) onwaste ground, a mound of wooden rubbish gradually ascending into thecarefully structured tower of pallets at the apex of the bonfire. The railingsaround it support loyalist flags while the bonfire itself is ready to burn SinnFein election posters and an Irish tricolour. The bonfire then puts onefinger up to South Studios while enjoying its own irony at the expenseof Sinn Fein and The Irish News (a sign on the bonfire reads AS SEEN INTHE IRISH NEWS, a reference to an article in the nationalist newspaperabout the bonfire). This bonfire then might be seen as a defiance of both thetraditional sectarian enemy and of the new Belfast, seen in its deliberate,

    Figure 3. John Duncans ShoreRoad Belfast, 2003, 2007.(Courtesy of BelfastExposed.)

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  • aggressive proximity to the modes of living promised by the South Studiodevelopment. But the changing times have the last word here; in thebackground there is a developers hoarding (one of Duncans favouritesubjects) for The Tate Courtyard, making it clear that eventually the verysite on which this bonfire stands will be taken over by the new Belfast.

    Documentary photography has, of course, differentiated itself from thenewspaper image by turning up self-consciously and thoughtfully afterthe event. The aftermath image draws attention to an ethics of conse-quences, and is a reminder of the permanency of things about which thephoto-journalistic image raises consciousness only to discard the nextday. In Bonfires John Duncan reverses the aftermath trajectory, turning upbefore the main event, during the preparations. These photographs areimages of the yet-to-come, not reminders of the soon-to-be-forgotten, andso they are questions, not statements. They contemplate the structures ofthese bonfires, since that is, on the surface, what they are photographs of.But more than this, they question the future and ask whether the loyalismthat brings them around every year, and is sustained by their symbolism,will fit into the larger scheme of things to come in Northern Ireland. Wherewill working-class loyalism find itself in Northern Irelands future? Will ithave to gentrify and commodify itself? At a time when the notion ofcommunity in Northern Ireland has been reified, hollowed out andrepackaged benignly through a mixture of good intentions and bad poli-tics, Eleventh Night bonfires are potentially an embarrassing sign of recal-citrance in a place unsure whether its future is based on shared spaces or

    Figure 4. John Duncans TatesAvenue, Belfast, 2004, 2007.(Courtesy of BelfastExposed.)

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  • the accommodation of continuing and perpetual differences. The politicssignalled by the bonfires press against the very limits of the limited think-ing about community that rippled out from the politics of the peaceprocess, and that validate a vague idea of community, or plural commu-nities, but have no sense of what a community really should be. In JohnDuncans photographs the bonfires are symbolic not so much of a com-munity, but of the future idea of community and its current paucity as aconcept. They ask what a community in Northern Irelands future might be.

    Since at least the 1950s, the authorities have sought, half-heartedly, toregulate the nuisance that bonfires cause, although at the height of the oldStormont regime environmental laws on burning fires were suspended forthe month of July. Eleventh Night bonfires now have an ambiguous placein the new, post-historical Northern Ireland. In 2005 the Northern IrelandOffice (NIO) was distributing advice leaflets on how to run a bonfire,beginning with a paeon to the Northern Irish bonfire of which J.G. Frazerwould have been proud:

    The tradition of bonfire celebrations goes back centuries. In early days the bonfires celebratedLights victory over Darkness and marked our control over Fire and lighting the dark of night.Newer meanings came with bonfires burning away the old years and lighting the path withwarm welcomes to New Years. Bonfires and beacons signalled through the dark and alwaysaround the bonfires warmly dancing were the celebrations. But celebrations like bonfires canget out of hand can lose the fun bring fear and pain and need control.29

    This advice leaflet points towards the future of Eleventh Night bonfires,at least as far as the rolling out of a new governance in the North isconcerned. The poorly concealed equation here between accidental injuryand political fear and pain is intended to justify the need for control.And vital for this common-sense approach is the utter inability even toname, never mind comprehend, loyalism and its ideas, history and pre-judices. The assumption that we all know what is being talked about isused to wipe away the specifics of loyalism and sectarianism. The bonfiresare imagined as cornered by the progress of history as it becomes non-history, as Northern Ireland faces its optimistic but unspecific future.

    John Duncans photographs constitute a series of reactions, by the bon-fire-builders and then by the photographer, to this enforced anachroniza-tion, in which Eleventh Night bonfires are pushed into a revised version ofthe space and time that they occupy in their community. So the Glencairnbonfire spreads out over its available communal space, making a claim onthe space as the living centre of a community just as a cricket match doeson a mythical English village green.30 It is the consistent and empatheti-cally critical vision of Duncans work that allows these images to resistseeing the bonfires as either historical anomalies or lurid Troubles touristsnaps. Duncan stands back far enough to be honest about his own observerposition, putting varieties of emptiness between him and the bonfires. Yethe is close enough that the viewer cannot avoid a feeling of implication.Duncans photographs, individually and collectively, prioritize clarity ofsight and a patience that follows from that clarity. Their palette, with thatgrey sky, multiple shades of greenery, and the textures of road surfaces, is

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  • itself a refusal to dramatize or sensationalize. These photographs arepoised at the present moment, but they are turned towards the future.

    We see here the jarring of what these bonfires once represented againstwhat they might become, and how they might refuse the future. The NIOsadvice leaflet would have us turn full circle and back to myth. In order togive the Eleventh Night cultural legitimacy, the reluctant admittance thatBonfires are one of the ways in which Northern Ireland people celebratetheir history needs the accompanying vagueness of the liberal, mythic,poetic, pseudo-druidic past, in which we are all at the mercy of the forcesof Light and Darkness.31 The only dancing performed here is in thetiptoeing of government rhetoric around what history, rather thanmyth, really means, and the aspiration to make history meaningless in allour tomorrows. John Duncans photographs of Eleventh Night bonfires,rising from their ineffably historical and social environments, reveal theleftover cultural incongruities that the wish fulfilments of myth cannotexplain away. His images, like Sloans, embody a dialectical relationshipbetween the relegated past and the possible futures of Northern Ireland,reminding us that the present moment is a critical one in which themanagement of the image is of a piece with the management of the pastand of the governance of the future.

    Notes

    1 Ed Moloney, Paisley: From Demagogue to Democrat (Dublin: Poolbeg, 2008), ix.

    2 Ibid., ix-x.3 Ibid., x.

    4 Robert Lundy was Governor of Derry during its siege by forces sympathetic to the Catholic King JamesII in 1689. He is reviled in Ulster Unionism for his apparent willingness to surrender the city, and hisname has since become synonymous (in Northern Irish Protestant culture in particular) with treachery.A recent rumination on the connotations of his name can be found in Derek Lundy, Men that God MadeMad: A Journey Through Truth, Myth and Terror in Northern Ireland (London: Jonathan Cape, 2006).

    5 Paisley announced his resignation as leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (and therefore as FirstMinister) in March 2008, and this took effect in May 2008. He was replaced by Peter Robinson.

    6 See David Lister, IKEA Opens Doors to the Odd Couple of Ulster, TimesOnline, December 13, 2007,http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/article3047534.ece (accessed April 12, 2008).

    7 Archival photographic projects in Northern Ireland in recent years include Claudio Hils,Archive_Belfast (Ostfildern-Ruit: Hatje Cantz, 2004); and Ursula Burke and Daniel Jewesbury, Archive:Lisburn Road (Belfast: Belfast Exposed, 2004). Specific exhibitions and projects concerning the borderinclude Donovan Wylie, British Watchtowers (Gottingen: Steidl, 2007); Jonathan Olley, Castles of Ulster(Belfast: Factotum, 2007); and The Borderlines Team, Borderlines (Dublin: Gallery of Photography,2006).

    8 http://www.dup.org.uk (accessed 15 April 2008).

    9 US-Northern Ireland Investment conference, http://www.investni.com/apps/usniconference/usniwebsite/index.html (accessed 16 April 2008).

    10 Hervey Gibson and James Gillan, Developing an Integrated Model of the Northern Ireland Economy:Social Accounts and Input-Output Tables, in The Northern Ireland Economic Bulletin 2007 (Belfast:Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, 2007), 106.

    11 Graeme Hutchinson and Thomas Byrne, Latest Position and Future Prospects, in The Northern IrelandEconomic Bulletin 2007 (Belfast: Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, 2007), 14.

    12 On the use of the term UK PLC (by Gordon Brown), see Trevor Smith (Lord Smith of Clifton),Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something Blue: Themes of Tony Blair andhis Government, Parliamentary Affairs 56 (2003): 580-596 (587 passim).

    13 Joseph Jaworski quoted in Philip Bobbitt, The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace and the Course of History(London: Penguin, 2002), 769.

    14 Consociationalism is a method for reaching agreed governance in places of (largely) ethnic conflict.Consociational agreement is reached through power-sharing between conflicting factions andintroducing proportionality into relevant aspects of government, with the possibility of a veto forrecognized minorities, so that consensus must be achieved. Underlying this is an assumption about the

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    http://www.investni.com/apps/usniconference/usniwebsite/index.htmlhttp://www.investni.com/apps/usniconference/usniwebsite/index.html

  • necessity for perceived equality of status for named ethnicities in cultural life. The development ofconsociational thought is largely credited to political scientist Arend Lijphart. See particularly ArendLijphart, Democracy in Plural Societies: A Comparative Exploration (New Haven, CT and London: YaleUniversity Press, 1977). For a relatively recent defence by Lijphart, after various critiques ofconsociationalism, see Arend Lijphart, Constitutional Design for Divided Societies, Journal ofDemocracy 15, no. 2 (2004): 96-109. In the Irish context, a vigorous critique of the role ofconsociationalism in the Peace Process can be found in G.K. Peatling, The Failure of the Northern IrelandPeace Process (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2004), 105-117. For the views of those who celebrated thisidea, see for example John McGarry and Brendan OLeary, The Northern Ireland Conflict: ConsociationalEngagements (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).

    15 Rick Wilford and Robin Wilson, The Trouble with Northern Ireland: The Belfast Agreement and DemocraticGovernance (Dublin: TASC, 2006), 15.

    16 Arend Lijphart, Patterns of Democracy (New Haven, CT and London: Yale University Press, 1999).

    17 This untitled image appears in John Duncan, Boom Town, Source 31 (2002): 31.

    18 Glenn Patterson and Victor Sloan, Luxus (Portadown: Millennium Court Arts, 2007).

    19 Ibid., 18.

    20 On Sloans work, see Brian McAvera, Marking the North: The Work of Victor Sloan (Dublin: Open Air,1990); and Victor Sloan, Victor Sloan: Selected Works (Belfast: Ormeau Baths Gallery/Orchard Gallery,2001).

    21 Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life (London: Verso, 2005), 121.

    22 John Duncan, Bonfires (Gottingen: Steidl/Belfast Exposed/Photoworks, 2008).

    23 John Duncan, Trees from Germany (Belfast: Belfast Exposed, 2003).

    24 Jack Santino, Light Up the Sky: Halloween Bonfires and Cultural Hegemony in Northern Ireland,Western Folklore. 55, no. 3 (1996): 213-231.

    25 See, for example, the testimonies gathered at http://www.the-twelfth.org.ok/ (accessed 5 April 2008).

    26 Fionnuala OConnor, Tonights the Night. The Independent, July 11, 1999, 13. Alan Gailey updates someof his folklorish predecessors and adds a more worldly-wise sense of Northern politics to the history ofNorthern bonfires; see Alan Gailey, The Bonfire in North Irish Tradition, Folklore 88, no. 1 (1977): 3-38.Gailey also notes O Danachairs more practical explanation for the appearance of bonfires at certaintimes of the year as being a relic of a system of signal fires lit to announce far and wide the coming ofthe season day; Gailey, Bonfire in North Irish Tradition, 4.

    27 Duncan, Bonfires, no page.

    28 Duncan, Trees from Germany, no page. See also his photograph of the developers sign announcing thebuilding of South Studios that appears in Nicolas Allen and Aaron Kelly, eds, The Cities of Belfast(Dublin: Four Courts, 2003).

    29 http://www.ni-environment.gov.uk/bonfireadvice.pdf (accessed 11 March 2008).

    30 Duncan, Bonfires, no page.

    31 http://www.ni-environment.gov.uk/bonfireadvice.pdf (accessed 11 March 2008).

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