Pauline Hadaway director of Belfast Exposed Gallery interviews Fergus Jordan about his forthcoming series Garden Estate. The exhibition opens in the Belfast Exposed Exchange Gallery on 17th October 2013 coinciding with the publication launch by The Velvet Cell.
My first two questions relate to specific areas of interest, which I am currently researching: relationships between artists and publics (including ideas of public space, public interest, public service, accountability, etc). Some of these research interests confront tensions between private and public interests and the contradictions they throw up: e.g. how to (should we?) defend artistic autonomy and individual freedom against the necessity of social and collective responsibilities, regulation and control. In policy terms, we tend to think about these tensions from the safe and cloistered position of cultural policy and management practices. But I can see these tensions expressed much more vividly in this piece of work, in the interplay between freedom and necessity: to put it bluntly, the freedom to compose the image and the necessity to stay under cover.
With this in mind I would be interested in hearing how you operated as a photographer in these spaces and how the protocols of these public spaces dictated the way you worked.
Over the years drug dealers have managed to develop systems where by they control space, using the estates complex layout to their advantage. If you are not buying then you are intruding and if you are photographing, from their perspective you are gathering information. Drug dealers depend on anonymity to function so they strive to create a kind of insulation from the outside world in order to remain invisible. The other residents of the estate remain silent to avoid confrontation from this uncontrollable but erratic minority, while the police do little but to make sure the trouble remains inside the boundaries of the estate. There are no supporting groups to help develop critical work, yet there is a determined component that wants to remain hidden. In the garden estate you are on your own. However this in itself creates a strong basis to make-work.
I developed a system that would allow me to build up the study slowly over time. I would never stop walking, photographing as I move, never back tracking over the same ground twice and never hanging around, the estate breeds an intense sense of paranoia. I found that I would spend the majority of my time trying to conceal my camera rather than actually using it. The camera made me feel incredibly vulnerable in this situation. All of these things contaminated the results, dictating the direction of the work. I ditched the tripod and opted to use high-speed film instead. I learned to embrace conventions in photography that, in the past I would have probably have disregarded as technically poor. Methods such as registering soft grainy photographs with a distinct lack of composer were adopted. Once I surpassed my own reservations of what a good photograph is or is not I found these distinctive qualities firmly appropriated the study.
The fragmented grainy photographs reflect the social cancer of Dunclug, just as the estate is slowly eroding, the photographs appear to be almost dissolving. I have a very conflicted relationship with the work but it triggers an appropriate level of repulsion that I feel about the subject.
The problem of social exclusion has dominated much political thinking over the last 2 decades, shaping how we think about social relations and systems for organsing society. Tensions between those we categorise as being at the centre or on the inside and those categorised as being at the margins, other or excluded have come to dominate arts, cultural and social policy thinking: perhaps one of the defining features of art and the public policy in the late 20th and early 21 century is an anxiety around engaging, reaching out and including an increasingly elusive ‘public’ or excluded community.
I think the complexity and fluidity of your position as an artist, a former resident and as a documentary photographer, illuminates some of the inherent contradictions of social exclusion/ inclusion as a way of imagining and organizing society (and the arts). What do you think?
I was in a unique position to examine Dunclug as a result of my inner / outer relationship to the estate. I feel connected to the space, its my home, I was a resident, Dunclug shaped my view of life and almost certainly my interest in urbanism. I understand the social mechanisms of Dunclug and have witnessed its slow fragmentation as it slowly became marginalised as a no go area. This experiential knowledge is more important than anything I could bring to the subject returning as an artist.
And In terms of what I think about the distinctions we make about social exclusion and inclusion?
They are ugly labels that suggest you are one or the other, locked in or out. It also suggests that if your in there is no getting out, you are socially restricted by your locale. Its detrimental to categorise communities in such black and white terms.
I think within the arts the social exclusion/ inclusion principle has stifled artistic autonomy to an extent. Not always, but often making it difficult to find support to make critical, reflective and engaging studies of communities such as Dunclug, where you may not have an insider collaborator to validate your context. Instead of interrogating and exploring these communities arts policy from this perspective can often be heavily focused on the re-imaging of community through a process of superficial normalisation.
I do not see myself fitting into either of two umbrella concepts, but see the study as an inward view looking outside the boundaries of social exclusion.
Over the past decade, Belfast Exposed has developed a range of projects, which express recurring thematic interest in photographic practices that engage ideas of the contemporary city, the archive and particular social issues, including, exploring the experience of marginalised communities in contemporary Northern Ireland. This work includes collaborative and research based projects, often similar to ethnographic models of social research, that involve immersive, long-term studies and a critical awareness of researcher/subject relationships.
Perhaps you could start by saying something about both your fieldwork approaches and strategies for addressing problems of visual representation.
Dunclug is full of dilapidated, boarded up empty housing stock, the kind of subject matter that has become the typical visual representation for the socially disadvantaged neighborhood. I made a concerted attempt to avoid photographing the visible ghettoistion of the estate, instead focusing on the large empty voids where high-rise flats and housing stock once stood. These seemingly empty spaces speak volumes about the short history of the site.
These nondescript areas intrigued me, houses sitting in isolation, hills supporting surveillance, poorly lit footpaths and the sinister nature of the shared garden spaces. The empty dark voids and complex network of footpaths became the focus of the study, amplifying the invisibly and social isolation of the community.
How do you feel Garden Estate relates to photography practices in Northern Ireland that have gone before? What influenced the work?
I have talked about the influence of the photojournalist working throughout the ‘Troubles’ in the north of Ireland as one of the key influences for my research practice in the past. However with Garden Estate I have attempted to deconstruct some of the visual methods they used and apply them within the work.
Often for the photojournalist the primary objective was to frame the immediacy of the situation, a task that came with a considerable level of risk. At night, make-do visual responses were employed: a combination of operating between the availability of ambient light and the use of slower shutter speeds in an effort to increase the chance of registering an exposure. The resulting images tended to be ill-defined. Yet rather than hindering the photographic process, these limitations underpinned the foundations of a unique visual aesthetic driven by the circumstances the photographer found themselves in, these approaches embody a characteristic that is strangely unsettling yet convincingly documented. I embaraced a corresponding method ‘a dialogue of necessity’ permitting my encounters with the space to dictate how the photographs were taken.
More broadly while making the work, I have been studying practice that attempts to unearth the differing categories of nighttime spaces in the city, and work that attempts to develop ever more specific narratives between night and place. I am also interested in work that examines the political dimension of lighting city spaces.
Work such as ‘Temporary Discomfort’ by Jules Spinatsch, revealing the conflicting tensions that are temporarily manifested through the nighttime landscape in anticipation of trouble at the controversial global economic summits. And Tobias Zielonys take on the street, the tensions that exist between watcher and watched and his sensitive portrayal of the movement and behaviors of youths in contemporary society. All played out using beautifully using darkness, artificial light and city as stage. I have also been studying the work of Daido Moriyama, I find both his motivations and visual style is intriguing.
In what ways do you feel the work may be expressing new departures?
Primarily my research seeks to distinguish the relationships and patterns that are manifested between night and city as a result of the photographic image. As I begin to broaden my research out I hope to define these relationships further. Garden Estate, for me was a critical part of developing my research process. It is imperative to stress the importance of localising practice, knowing where your voice comes from. Only by looking closer could I competently broaden my field of research, knowing that my practice will always remain intimately connected to Dunclug.
Pauline Hadaway has worked in arts and education since 1990 and as director of Belfast Exposed Photography since 2000, overseeing its transformation from a small scale, though politically significant, city based project into an internationally renowned gallery of contemporary photography.
 ENGAGING WITH PLACE: Portraits of a city include: Playing Belfast (2010) by Harri Palviranta, Bonfires (2008) by John Duncan; All Over Again (2004) by Eoghan McTigue. ENGAGED PRACTICE: Participatory and collaborative practice include: Residency by Anthony Luvera (publication 2011 / exhibition 2008), Playgrounds (exhibition, 2010) by CJ Clarke, Border Country (exhibition and publication, 2008) by Melanie Friend,