The Estate as Battleground by Sarah Allen
During The Troubles, Dunclug Estate, located in Ballymena, was one of the largest estates in Northern Ireland where Protestants and Catholics lived side by side. By virtue of its mixed nature the estate resisted easy seizure by paramilitaries, and due to its unpoliced terrain, it soon became a breeding-ground for drug dealing. By 1999 it was estimated that the Ballymena area had several hundred active heroin users. In viewing Fergus Jordan’s latest publication, Garden Estate, the viewer embarks on a journey through the foreboding urban landscape of the estate. We cross deserted streets, turn ominous corners and approach sinister stairwells.
Plunged into darkness, these spaces become sites of penetrating anxiety. The mode of depiction seems indebted to surveillance footage, yet unlike such footage, the imagery in Garden Estate strongly resists legibility. Pools of shadow are emotionally charged as the viewer tries–and fails–to draw a potential subject from the darkness. A sense of the fleeting moment, the split-second exchange, is expressed through a lack of camera focus. This could be an exchange between dealer and addict, but equally it is an exchange between photographer and site. The viewer has a keen sense of the photographer’s potentially vulnerable position while shooting the images.
All the images are both lacking in action and devoid of human presence. The only sign of life – apart from the distant headlights of cars – is a haggard horse which appears mid-way through the book. It seems interesting that the human subject is consciously excluded. It would have been an inherently difficult task to photograph the protagonists of this narrative; the dealers, addicts or police. Such images might have strayed into the voyeuristic or exploitative in a similar manner to Larry Clark’s project Tulsa which documented amphetamine users in Oklahoma in the 1970s. In Clark’s project, rather than reflecting on the problem of drug addiction or the potential solution, the viewer becomes a voyeur glimpsing the expressly seedy and explicit moments of drug addiction. However by turning his focus on the urban landscape, Jordan opens up a more meditative dialogue on the subject. Despite the fact Garden Estate provokes reflection on the protagonists, the project’s true subject is the site itself – the estate is cast as battleground.
The design of Dunclug was loosely based on the Radburn planning principles conceived by Clarence Stein, Henry Wright and Marjorie Sewell Cautley. The design reserved the front of estates for green space by positioning roads and parking spaces at the rear of the building. Yet what began with positive, functional building transmuted into a site par excellence for drug dealing. Dealers would keep watch at single entry points and the labyrinthine layout provided myriad escape routes and hiding places. Police would frequently barricade these routes in attempts to curb the problem. When moving from image to image and through the urban landscape, our trip is interrupted by such fences and blockades. Police reaction to drug dealing at specific sites was to demolish the building in a naive belief that by killing the site, they would kill the source. Perhaps then, these fences and blockades symbolise the impotent attempts of police to deal effectively with the epidemic.
The subject of Garden Estate is extremely thought-provoking. In Northern Ireland, where communities are still divided along lines of religion and polarised ideology, it is a melancholic fact that a small spark of ‘political neutrality’ was so quickly extinguished. If the darkest hour precedes the dawn then perhaps the final image in the book (being one of the darkest) signals a sense of hope. Yet this reading is negated when one realises that our journey through the estate has ultimately lead to what looks like a darkened cul-de-sac. Hope does not spring eternal in this project and the scars left on the estate remain despite the passage of time.
The images in Garden Estate require time for the viewer to appreciate their quiet, reflective nature, but by spending that time the viewer will be well rewarded.