art
 and 
context
Relations and Divisions in Work and its Representation, Part 2
November 2013

The scene is one of unspoken dialogue. From a traffic island on the street Des Geraghty stares up at the higher reaches of Liberty Hall, and an actor in the role of James Larkin gazes down from the vantage of a window in the 1960s tower block that functions as a trade union headquarters. Geraghty, ex- trade union leader and politician, and here narrator in TG4’s drama-doc Stailc 1913 (Strike 1913), looks towards the founding father while Larkin is seen reflective pose in surroundings that are our present. Larkin is shot in the foreground against an expansive background, a view from Liberty Hall that encompasses the cathedral-like pyramids which cap the buildings in the vicinity of Dublin’s Financial Services Centre, a product of boom-time Ireland. These exchanges and juxtapositions across time and space are not accidental. Stailc 1913 is a layered drama-doc in which past and present overlap not only in regard to the montage style of the filming but also in how comic-strip, song, commentary, and restored photographs and film are incorporated. While the drama-doc is personality-driven rather than grounded in the class issues that Geraghty can only hint at (this is a TV programme geared for general consumption), Stailc 1913 is committed, innovative, and engaging, (currently available for viewing at TG4’s website).

An account of the strike as a conflict between the interests of workers and employers is always in danger of being consumed by the political events leading to the 1916 Rising and beyond: the National Question has dominated Ireland’s politics and understanding of history, and the Lockout is too readily placed in this context. That, thus far, this is at the cost of research on social histories beyond the ruling class becomes clear at the exhibition of photographs, Working Lives 1893-1913 at the National Photographic Archive at Meeting House Square in Temple Bar, Dublin ongoing until May 2014. The exhibition is a selection of newly digitized photographs from the period and is drawn from several donations and from all parts of Ireland. What is remarkable is that these are photographs of men, women, and sometimes children at their place of work which invariably involves mechanization and degrees of production which far exceed local use value. We are so attuned to aestheticized images of Ireland—whether rural or urban—that these records showing people in small-scale industrialized environments is almost revelatory. We are simply not accustomed to such portrayals of Irish working and social formations (i.e. the working classes), which indicates a serious lack in our awareness of the transition towards modernity and its effects on ways of life.

Another notable feature of Working Lives is the extent of photographs which show women in the workplace, that is outside the home, and men and women together in the same workplace. We are familiar with the fact that a high percentage of women were in domestic service but this indicates the existence of a different pattern beyond the high concentration in Victorian cities of middle and upper classes who employed servants. A curatorial turn was the invitation to see Working Lives in conjunction with Still, We Work, an exhibition at the Gallery of Photography on the opposite side of Meeting House Square in Temple Bar. The latter, a touring exhibition inaugurated at the Gallery of Photography before travelling to 126 Gallery in Galway, was commissioned by The National Women’s Council of Ireland (NWCI) under a legacy project initiative. Four artists, including a team of two, were invited to respond to women’s work and the centenary of the Lockout. The result includes Sarah Browne’s reflections around the computer, Miriam O’Connor’s photography-based study of work at NWUI’s office, Vagabond Reviews’ research on largely unacknowledged community and social work by women, and Anne Tallentire’s compilation of women architects’ relationships with buildings located in Dublin’s city centre including the site of Jacob’s Factory, significant in Lockout history. ‘Work’ is here much less defined than in 1913. In fact there is no point of entry or exit, witness a central feature of the exhibition—a well-crafted wooden box on legs and several compartments within. An information leaflet informs us this is designed by Fiona McDonald and its purpose is as exhibition packing; the displayed work fits in this travelling portfolio. The metaphor for this form, Support Surface, may be more to do with potentially transformative work between art and design but the more vulgar metaphor is that between the exhibited work and the ancillary work that makes it possible.

Both Browne and Tallentire focus on the affective registers of work: positive in the case of Tallentire, for Browne a mixed bag of the imaginary and the repressive. What then should we make of Santiago Sierra’s exhibition at Void in Derry where the work is directed at effects on the viewer? Void commissioned Sierra to produce two works, Psychophonies and Veterans. Psychophonies is comprised of three recent sound recordings from three sites where torture is alleged to have occurred during the conflict in the North/Northern Ireland. These recordings are simply the sound of local countryside and, for the visitor who is an outsider, attention is more drawn to Veterans with video and sound that confronts in uncompromising manner. Filmed through a drone, it is set in one of the dilapidated buildings that form Ebrington, until recently a British Army Barracks strategically stationed at a vantage point in Derry. As usual, Sierra has contracted people to perform in his artwork; we are told in the hand-out that here they are British Army veterans who, individually, in different rooms of the building, stand facing a corner, while the drone, the spectator’s single viewpoint, makes its flight up, down and through rooms and corridors. The spectator is taken through a crumbling interior via severe editing cuts and repetitions in Sierra’s trademark black and white photography. The single sound may be presumed to be the noise made by the drone but this is aggravated to the point where it has become a penetrating and shrill drill. The symbolism from drone, to location, to the back views of the veterans is obvious, but the experience created is effectively conflict re-presented.

Santiago Sierra’s reputation is built upon his interrogation of labour, capital, and exploitation. A first reaction therefore to Veterans at Void is that, as spectator, he may have been drawn to the North’s conflict and the visual spectacle it so readily provides, (which includes imagining how alleged events may have happened). (This is in marked contrast to Still, We Work). Further, his audience may become implicated in this. A related question is that the installation appears to give precedence to the legacy of colonialism over issues of labour relations. In amongst the catalogue material on display at Void is a copy of an article on Sierra published in Ephemera, (February 2013). The author argues that Sierra’s hiring of workers who will be used at will is justified because its stark replication of capitalism involves a hard confrontation with the viewer that strips away the soft wrapping that usually attends capitalist practice geared to better-off participants. So far so good, but the article then raises the question of the position Sierra assumes and it is argued that this artwork needs the puppet-master: that Sierra’s presentation is the condition of capitalism and the viewer must face up to that fact. The article offers the moral argument that Sierra’s mastery is necessary in order to expose the reality. But apart from positioning which is an alignment with capitalist practice, it might also be said that Sierra’s use of workers who have less rights than his viewers—migrants, or in this case (ex) soldiers—is somewhat too distinct as different from the rest of us. In the emerging neoliberal world the economic gap between the rich and the poor is increasing exponentially. But also economic opportunity for the middle classes is shrinking at a rapid rate; there are fewer and fewer white collar jobs. There is a case to be made that Sierra projects an overly stable relation between the artist, his audience, and the objects in his work. The players in this scenario seem too abstracted, particularly when seen within the context of the economically depressed city of Derry.