Text: From my PhD thesis
Taken from the PhD thesis; Under Cover of Darkness, Photography, Territory and the City. 2012
The relationships between vision and territory stem beyond the preoccupation of iconographic symbolism, even if the signifiers of territory are absent, the landscape remains contaminated by a dualistic dynamic of one territory or the other. When it becomes impossible to discern territory by conventional methods of reading the surrounding symbols, we seek alternative methods to pinpoint territorial jurisdictions. Case study two deals with this concern through a site-specific study of a dark passage that runs parallel to three sectarian housing estates in Belfast. Spanning the New Lodge Estate, a Republican territory situated in North Belfast, toward the Loyalist Shankill Road and finally leading into the Republican Divis area. The route follows the M1 motorway, a road known for its function as a ‘firebreak’ from opposing territories North and West of the City Centre. The passage exists as a narrow strip sandwiched between the edge of these territories and the motorway. Curiously, it remains unoccupied by the usual territorial demarcation found in the neighbouring sectarian landscapes.
At night the darkened passage is divided by pools of light, physically fragmenting the space in a manner that corresponds closely to the political connotations of division. This dialect sits uncomfortably with the highly charge sectarian landscape. From this position I questioned parallels between territorial divisions and the appearance of physical duality. Visualising dialogues of fragmentation, division and control.
Working in the alleyway was difficult. While revisiting the space I could feel my confidence withering. It was difficult to ignore my intuitive fear of darkness and concern for my personal safety in this situation, even after several visits, I still found it difficult to think rationally. The space managed to cloud my thoughts, distorting my judgement from other relationships that might be happening. However, in looking at the results in post-production, it was clear that the series of photographs provided the critical distance necessary from the physical alleyway to begin to think about these complex roles.
The photograph gave me the flexibility to think about the space without the overriding anxieties of being present in the alleyway. It allowed me to recompose the alleyway through a process of framing and manipulation, orchestrating the scene in order to stage a dialogue between the viewer and the pools of darkness and light. Digital manipulation was used to stage some of the key tensions that did not translate through photographing alone. These subtle changes permitted greater authorship over the photograph. Pools of light and the grass banks were highlighted, drawing the eye into the centre of the photograph, while the foreground was darkened to simulate a slippery sense of dislocation. Certain information was also removed from the photograph such as distinctive landmarks that appeared in the background. The elimination of this information prevented the reader from any attempt to locate or rationalise the political geography of the landscape.
After a prolonged editing process a series emerged, functioning as a downward journey through the passage. I employed a method of disclosing the minimal amount of information necessary in order to evoke a series of questions about the space. The mid-tonal values are reduced to amplify the relationships between darkness and light, offering the viewer no middle ground, instead prompting them into a dichotomy. Contextualising this against the historical circumstances of division in the city, metaphorically the deficiency of mid-tones is deepened, further eliminating any sense of plurality in the space.
In analysing this premise, there is reason to suggest that social geography of the space calls for a re-evaluation of the assumed roles of dark and light spaces. For example, the general consensus in such a hostile space would be to move toward the streetlight, the sanctuary of safety. The prospect of light begins to pose a new set of difficulties, to see is to be seen.The predicament between lighting and identity is heightened even further as concentrated pools of light reflect the attributes of the spotlight or powerful torchlight a category of light that is widely regarded as the first form of personal identification. In many European cities before the advent of public street lighting carrying a torch light was mandatory, making visible the presence of any individual who walked the streets at night, legitimising their purpose for being out after dark. The same relationships are still maintained between street lighting and identification. Street lights act as a form of surveillance designed to indiscriminately reveal the identity of the users in the space. This double function is questioned in the series, posing that artificial light is both a tool that has the capacity to both guide and expose the presence of anyone within visible distance. From this perspective the engagement with light in the alleyway becomes a risky prospect, resulting in a sense of mistrust bordering on the paranoia.
This leaves the viewer with the spaces of darkness as the only alternative to negotiate the alleyway. This is a daunting prospect for most, as the engagement with complete darkness has become a strangely an unfamiliar encounter. Only when faced with the total castration of artificial light do we opt to explore the dark corners of the city. In this instance I attempt to ask the viewer to reconsider darkness as a space of perceived safety by remaining in the shadows, the chances of revealing one’s identity in unknown territory being greatly reduced.
Perhaps it is not a question of whether darkness can provide anonymity for the individual innocently negotiating the alleyway but whom is it covering and why are they attempting to conceal their presence? A darkened alleyway may provide cover and relative comfort from the fear of being victimised, the same anonymity is obtainable to those seeking cover to conduct criminal activities. Evidently this nocturnal no-man’s land becomes the ideal place for the criminal, so anyone caught in the shadows is incriminating themselves by association, even if its a legitimate act in a desperate attempt to conceal one’s identity.
A public space that cannot be illuminated sits outside of an established form of social control, the disconnected chains and isolated pools of light act as a component of fear, signaling disarrangement of social order, and suggests the space has been abandoned by the watchful eyes of authority. This contributes to a burdening sense of unease in the alleyway. As the voids of darkness fill the spaces where the light cannot reach, a dialogue of disorder and fear begins to intensify. The possibility that the alleyway has become the territory of the criminal is confirmed by the broken streetlight. Breaking lights is a strategy for vandals and those who want to take control of the alleyway. Fundamentally it is an act of rebellion against authority, a means to resist against the control of authority through light. Tactically it prevents users from efficiently entering, exiting and negotiating space, positioning the space firmly outside of the remit of normalised society situating the alleyway as a space that cannot be policed, controlled or monitored.
The case study evokes a series of questions about the function of duality against the political context of the landscape by instigating a series of questions that remain intentionally suggestive. The work opens a number of possible narratives within the space. This dynamic is highly ambiguous with every choice made the roles of darkness and light can shift. This form of speculative interrogation is a useful tool, opening up a channel for critical discussion about the specific socio-cultural concerns of the alleyway as a dislocated territory.
Written by Fergus Jordan, taken from the PhD thesis; Under Cover of Darkness, Photography, Territory and the City. 2012 (Research institute of Art and design and the Built Environment, Univeristy of Ulster)
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