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Displacements

By Richard Ashrowan

‘Displacements’ is a paper written by Dr. Richard Ashrowan for the MExIndex by our 2020 curator.  It is a study of the eight artists’ moving image works he selected from an open submission of fifty seven  works for the 2020 MExIndex open submission screening.

 

Displacements

In making this selection from the works submitted for the MExIndex 2020 Screening, my approach was one of looking for associations, as if searching for a common language in the traces of overheard conversation between one work and another. As each of the works began to speak in their myriad ways, some seemed also to begin to orbit around the central idea of displacement, and it was this theme that in turn became my guiding principal for the final selection.

To think of this word, displacement, conjours within us a penumbra of meanings, places and peoples, a network of relations ever expanding out from its centre. Perhaps we can just enter into this space for a moment, to sweep our eyes across this landscape of associations? We might first think of refugees, of forced migrations, the immigrant experience, the crossing of boundaries, camps, and exile. Displacement is often a foundational experience for the Irish diaspora, and for all the myriad diasporic communities scattered across the globe. Liminal spaces open up before us, a sense of the distance between one and another. We find displacement activated between self and other, in the negotiation of difference, across time and space, of identity, language, and place.

Returning to the centre of the word, displacement is a movement, but it is a

movement involving forces that act upon us, it has a past to reckon with, and there are consequences to face. To be displaced, or to displace oneself, is to carry the knowledge of where we have been displaced from, of the space we have left behind, and of the novelty of where we find ourselves now. Displacement is rooted in a known history, and it projects itself toward an unknowable future. It contains an implicit sense of threat to notions of belonging and identity, it evokes nostalgia. What are we being displaced by, and what are we in turn displacing? Has that space we once occupied now been filled by someone or something else? Are the forces that acted upon us kind or cruel? The word has further connotations of quantity and degree: we can measure the displacement of an object as it is moved from one medium to another, yet we may not so easily measure the volume of our psychological losses and gains.

Do the artists in this programme perhaps speak out most clearly from between these cracks? In the fissures between one state and another, between one identity and another, from a position of belonging but not belonging? Is a sense of displacement within the artist and their work a necessary creative strategy for these times? If we loosen ourselves from the constraints of fixed identity, from language, place or nationality, there can certainly be a radical reclaiming of agency and liberation. The artist displaces their sense of place for a different sense of in-between-ness, and a new position of critical distance emerges. To be able to consciously occupy that space betwixt and between can be a form of creative empowerment. Yet we must acknowledge that displacement has equally been employed for oppression and exclusion. In considering any form of displacement, the question of where the agency lies must come first. Is it wilfully entered into, or forced upon us?

I chose the films for this programme in part for their thematic relationships, but equally for how well they demonstrated an understanding of the moving image as fundamentally a medium of displacement. Both time and place are displaced into the moving image, opening the creative possibility for recombining them in new ways. These films all use various strategies to rupture linear time, to locate and dislocate, to break the normal perceptual relationships between place and memory, past and present, image, sound and text. It is in these acts of displacement that new meaning is made. The power of the moving image is that we also displace something of ourselves into a film as viewers: entering into the artist’s perceptual field, we might also begin to feel what they feel. So a further consideration in the selection was related to each film’s capacity to approach their subjects with a certain indirectness, how much space they left for the viewer to enter with their own thoughts and feelings. In turn, I hope this selection will further help us reflect on the position of the artist in relation to their own distinctions of place, memory, identity, and belonging.

In Deirde Mulrooney’s Lucia Joyce: FULL CAPACITY, we see the dancer Evanna Lynch re-imagining a dance performance, based on a 1928 photograph of Lucia Joyce taken by Berenice Abbott. Lucia was the daughter of James Joyce and experienced a very particular kind of erasure, her artistic career ending in forced incarceration in a psychiatric asylum, where she spent most of her later adult life. The backstory here is tragic and compelling, yet even this stark and oversimplified re-telling performs a secondary erasure. The story displaces Lucia Joyce’s own achievements, the ten years of her life and art dedicated to professional practice as a dancer. What Mulrooney creates within her film is not another re-telling of this deadening narrative, but a living re-inscription of Lucia Joyce, her body vitally reconstituted in celebration of her creative life. Lynch, as a dancer, displaces the erasure, her own body in place of the absented body of Jo

yce. For Mulrooney, “the female body has always been displaced and disenfranchised in 20th century Irish culture.” In reckoning with the multiple narratives of female displacement within her film, Mulrooney is also reflecting upon her own female identity within Irish culture. Born in Canada to Irish parents, she was sent back to Ireland, where she says she experienced not quite alienation, but that she felt “slightly at an angle.” This is a subtle shift in point of view, forging an ability to glance sideways into the gaps between places and cultures, between histories and actualities.

Common to both film and literature, the travelogue is often used to frame the tensions between place and otherness. In The Long Way Round by Jacqueline Heeley & Philippe Faujas, a sense of otherworldliness is crafted through a melancholy black and white evocation of distance, a blurry flurry of sense impressions. A poignant narrative of leaving and staying, memory and loss, threads its way throughout. Traversing indeterminate landscapes, through blurs of lights and rain, figures seen, often off- guard, through rain-soaked windows. The effect is to distance us, as if the viewer and maker are always one step removed, strangely absent and voyeuristic, experiencing this reality through another lens, another place, and never quite able to enter into the actuality of the now. As artists, coming from different parts of the world and having

lived between countries, they question any notion of belonging, “Can you belong? And even, is it essential?” they ask. Belonging here carries with it the connotation of control. To belong to somewhere is also to abide by its rules, to be subject to outwardly imposed strictures of behaviour. In its point of view, The Long Way Round embodies a sense of not belonging while leading the viewer into a visceral perceptual experience of displacement. The film rejects positions of fixity or clarity in favour of a turning outward of the messy, blurry in-between space of transitional experience.

The displacement of one form of belonging for another has long been a strategy of the colonial project, and the usurping of existing cultural identities is equally at play within many of today’s forces of globalisation. The question is powerfully elucidated in Bold Writing, a film by Bernie Masterson with texts by the poet Ma?ighre?ad Medbh. The film enters one of Vere Foster’s ‘Bold Writing’ handwriting copy books, found in Mountjoy Prison in the 1990’s. These books were widely used and ‘Approved by all the Leading School Board Authorities in the United Kingdom and the Colonies.’ Masterson describes her first reaction when reading the proverbs within, “I felt an enormous sense of indignation… [it was] a colonial form of cultural, political, and moral brainwashing.” Collaborating with Ma?ighre?ad Medbh, the artists subvert the moral imperatives given, translating each into an anagram. ‘First deserve and then desire’ becomes ‘Stern, sad, I hide tender fevers’ and ‘No bad man can be happy’ becomes ‘No pay? Nab a damp bench.’ The film and its texts perform a reversal of the original ideological mission, displacing letters into new sentences, displacing slavish copying for the creative act. It is a subversive act of mimicry in which new meanings are made and creative agency is reclaimed. As Medbh says “the first set of meanings are shifted from the primary position, and so the power shifts.” This is not any kind of dismissal or erasure of the colonial artefact or its place in history, it is instead a kind of revivication. The creative acts of displacement within Bold Writing can therefore serve to re-assimilate a problematic colonial past into the living present.

For Shia Conlon, her experiences of ongoing displacement between Ireland and Finland form the backdrop for a beguiling evocation of growing up in working class Ireland. Emerging from the gap between past and present, Exalted comes upon us a kind of mystery, an elliptical and poetic examination of her own Irish childhood through the lives of her three nieces. But these images are like surfaces, interrupted by darker undercurrents of unnamed and elusive traumas revisited. Her words in the film provide only hints and traces: “The womb is the tomb / pierce the membrane by surgery / the gun by spit / pierce the membrane by blood / refuse”… “Due to personal reasons the body will now exist as animal… disobediently … by vomiting … as ungovernable.” Conlon describes her film as a both a re-visitation and a witnessing, an attempt to rescue her own childhood, to send warning signals between her self now and her child self. “I was thinking about what would have been different had there been witnesses to the violence I was part of” she says, “I see Exalted as a sort dialogue between a past and present self, an exploration of non linear time” It is through the circuits of embodied memory that this film operates, the living moment of the other, her nieces, serve in part to displace past traumas. Dislocated memories equally appear to be constantly wrapping themselves around the present, threatening

to strangle it. As viewers, we are never quite sure of the position of the filmmaker- narrator, who seems to oscillate between memory and actuality, witness and victim, between hints of lived trauma and an unblemished present. In the final scene, one of her nieces jumps up and down upon sheets of abandoned corrugated iron, the camera turns, time slows, and her body seems to levitate. Might we surrender our past into this nowness, might we wilfully displace our sufferings with this moment of joy and exaltation?

In Lethe, Ellen O’Connor also tackles the subject of memory, this time displacing it not into human subjects, but into water, ice and dust. Certain of our most elemental substances , perhaps most notably the classical four elements of fire, earth, air and water, seem to have retained an archaic ability to provoke deep imaginative reveries in the human mind. In Lethe, water becomes a kind of homeopathic dilution, a water- memory, freezing, holding and flowing with the artist’s own traces of dislocation and consequent forgetting. O’Connor places the Greek myth of the River Lethe at its heart, which flowed around the Cave of Hypnos and through the underworld, where all those who drank from it experienced complete forgetfulness. Shot in both Canada and Ireland, O’Connor says the film is “steeped in my own personal displacement, from moving abroad, back home and moving abroad again… drawn to the expansive and mythic properties of water throughout.” The film opens with black, then images of dust suspended in the air, while moments of blackness interrupt the now flowing images, strange momentary absences. Canadian artist Amanda Jane Porter, the narrator, delivers an elusive and dream like monologue. “Some of the energy is still here / distant calls and splashes / this is how it exists entirely / there has been no event… I have forgotten nearly all things / I am still forgetting.” Lethe feels like one of those waking moments as we struggle in vain to recall a dream, while the dream flees uncontrollably away from us. Memory here flows away from us on a beautiful tide of forgetting, calling us back to presence.

Denis Buckley’s Blank History addresses a very specific experience of Irish displacement, it is in part a eulogy for the generation of economic migrants who moved from Ireland to London in the post-war years. Inspired by the famous photo taken at Spitalfields by Don McCullin, titled ‘Homeless Irishman,’ Buckley, who relocated from Ireland to London in 1985, says “The absence of a name in an Irish context compounds his displacement, so I told him I would do what I could… The Homeless Irishman became the guide through the unnamed dead still swirling in the building dust of today’s sky rise London.” Though the geographies may change, the plight of the economic migrant has only amplified today. The 2017 fire at Grenfell Tower in London was a catalyst for Buckley, where it is estimated at least 72 people died, the residents of which included a high proportion of economic migrants, asylum seekers and low paid workers, with yet many more unnamed and undocumented lives displaced. While many may talk of this event in terms of tragedy, others rightly speak of it as a form of ‘social murder.’ Blank History takes us on a tour of this highrise London, into flames, burning through images of the artist, himself cast as homeless Irishman, and returning to dust. We are guided by him and by his accompanying ‘angels’, through a multitude of disembodied voices, talking of love, grief,

impermanence and loss. It is a strident, angry and heartfelt lament: “Only the suffering from loss is what remains… It just seems that the thief or the liar wins. Yes, this is Blake’s city still.” Buckley has previously explored his own personal relationship with questions of loyalty and identity in a broad body of creative work. “I know now I have broken with place” he says, and the artistic process “freed me of past indoctrinations of fidelity and responsibility, seeing clearer the subterfuge of political narrative”. Others are not so fortunate, he acknowledges, many migrants never manage to reconcile themselves to their losses, becoming lost themselves. The role of the artist here, he appears to suggest, is to attempt to occupy the fissure of not- belonging itself, the spaces between here and there, self and other. It is position of empathetic involvement, yet necessarily distanced.

Tara McGinn performs a rigorous autopsy of our relationship with monuments, collecting, and the institutional archive in The Room is Full of Weapons. The work presents a digital rendering of educational art images, principally depicting monumental sculpture, found in the Belfast School of Art. Employing the formal characteristics and sounds of a traditional slideshow lecture, these images are appropriated, displaced and remediatised by the artist. Alongside the archival images, or slides, new texts are placed “A symbol of acquisition / behaving like a machine / the monument is absent / decapitated / amputated / petrified / They watch.” The effect is to strangely humanise these objects, and to invite us to consider their plight in enduring so very many traumas of displacement; from stone to human subject, to sculptural icon, to colonial acquisition, to museum collection, where they are photographed, disseminated and ignominiously used as a study aid. Their latest displacement is of course into McGinn’s film. No matter who they represented, or what power these forms originally held, their forced displacements have fragmented them, often literally, to the point where they are now only a surface upon which art theories are projected. Each and every displacement comes at a cost, much as it does for displaced people. McGinn’s film brings into question the power dynamics not only of the classroom, but also of the entire morbid machinery of the museum and art institution, its colonial complicity in the appropriation of cultural artefacts as objects of study. As McGinn says, she is literally “displacing the notion of history.”

If we now turn to language, as an abstraction of our manner of thinking, we instinctively know how inextricably linked it is to ideas of belonging and identity. More than that, language is a way of seeing and experiencing, as much as it is a way of talking about our world. This is an idea powerfully brought to life in Basil Al- Rawi’s The Salmon Leapt Toward Babel. The film opens with the camera moving slowly along a pathway in Ireland, while the artist speaks in Arabic, relating fragments of memory from a time he lived in Jordan, aged twelve. As it develops, images of Ireland are displaced by his own old photographs of Jordan, and the voiceover is displaced by Irish, also spoken by the artist. Yet neither language is native to Al-Rawi: the English subtitles are his mother tongue. As the film unfolds, the voiceover continually flips between languages and memories, gesturing toward traumas, while the images traverse two very different locales and times in the artist’s life. Nothing is ever quite still; even the still photographs, refilmed, appear to quiver

with movement. The question of the narrator’s identity remains fluid and uncertain throughout. Al-Rawi grew up in Ireland, of mixed Irish-Iraqi heritage. “I was constantly reminded of my ‘identity’ even though I wasn’t quite sure what that was or where I was supposed to fit in”, he says. Moving to Jordan, aged twelve, was not dissimilar in this regard: “There too I was deemed ‘different’. Defined by my ginger haircolour, inadequacies with Arabic language and my ‘Irishness’, feelings of marginality persisted.” Yet from within the film, a visceral sense of clarity and cohesion pervades, its linguistic displacements do point toward difference, yet ultimately what they achieve is an overall aura of synthesis. Across three languages and two places, it is one human being who speaks.

Emerging from these films is a sense of the tension between the traumas of displacement and its implicit possibilities for liberation and empowerment. Many of these artists have direct personal experience of displacement, whether by choice or otherwise, and we often see these experiences reflected in the diverse creative strategies they have subsequently employed within their work. The position the artist often inhabits is within that gap between the placed and the displaced, a position which may arguably have far greater agency than if they were to remain on any one side of that equation. Taking such a position, the artist is free to deconstruct and reconstitute what terms like place and belonging might signify. But what of the traumas of displacement?

In psychoanalytic theory, Freud proposed another meaning for displacement: that it represents the substitution or projection of deep trauma into an unrelated target. We unconsciously displace our feelings from one person, the person in whom they belong, into another, where they do not. This kind of displacement is one of avoidance, the idea that redirecting our feelings against another can help us avoid a confrontation with our deeper fears, our traumas and terrors. I would argue that such psychological displacement is not always bound up in implicit negativity, but can be a powerful motive force for creative action. We can displace our traumas into other things – films, writing, or political activism for example – with a meaningful sense of personal liberation and transformation. But to do so requires agency, it requires choice. Choice and agency are privileges many of the displaced people in the world have been robbed of. And this is something we should never forget, that we have a responsibility toward all the myriad victims of forced displacements the world over. How might we, as humans and artists, respond to that?

Richard Ashrowan
MExIndex Curator in Residence 2020

Dr. Richard Ashrowan  is an independent artists’ film curator and moving image artist. He was the founder and Creative Director of Alchemy Film Festival in Scotland from 2010 to 2019 and curator for Scotland + Venice at the Venice Art Biennale 2017.  He is a founder member of the Moving Image Makers Collective.

See more about him here Dr Richard Ashrowan


Published on: 03/12/2020
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