In Haunt

Have you ever considered your place within place? The layers of history, happenings, that hide under each foot; untapped stories that surround you? Exploring embodied landscapes in his work is artist Joe Duffy, who is also Senior Lecturer in Filmmaking at Manchester School of Art, Manchester Metropolitan University.

Joe Duffy

This is certainly no ordinary approach to place. Joe uses a variety of forms including film and photography, as well as innovative processes such as GPS mapping and drone filmmaking, to push open the possibilities of encounter, across the world. Exploring the past through forward-thinking creative technologies puts the onlooker in an interesting position, open to perspectives they may not have considered before. This often involves delving into the layers of location, looking at the interlocked emotions, stories and sensations that develop over time; rich spatial narratives that can both enchant and haunt us.

From fragmented views of life situated around one of the biggest recycling plants of Jakarta and the urban periphery that exists there (as seen in Joe’s film 'Peripheries’) - to encountering the automated uncanny in the form of a children’s ride, the range of Joe’s film work is fascinating in itself. His photography has also encountered alternative aspects of international locations, as well as closer to home. For example, Reclaimations is a photographic documentation of some of Manchester’s historic buildings – such as Elizabeth Gaskell’s House – whilst Block considers the patterns of individual existence centred around a Salford tower block and the Modernist architecture of its living spaces. Further afield, Between Two Deserts takes an entirely different urban area as inspiration; focusing on newly forming city spaces (as seen in his striking photography, below.).  A number of Joe’s works have also been in collaboration with fellow artist Eimer Birkbeck, and under the name ‘Birkbeck & Duffy’, joint projects have included REUNION and Offshore – the latter being a fascinating exploration of the landscape of offshore wind farms.

Between Two Deserts

Joe’s current project – Cillini – is particularly striking. Cillini is the plural (singular cillín) to refer to historic burial sites spread across rural Ireland – usually circular stone-works marking the graves of unbaptised and stillborn children. With some dating from as early as the 17th century and sites still being discovered, these are harrowing locations of loss and oppressive religious practice; in-line with religious beliefs at the time that unbaptised souls would be subject to eternal limbo and could not be buried in consecrated ground. Joe is currently working to explore these sites through a range of media, inviting deep reflection and thought on the narratives that exist within these spaces. Some of The Cillini are dignified and well-visited, some have been re-blessed – yet others isolated, untended.

Using drones to create an emotive sense of place, Joe aims to craft sensitive film footage of The Cillini, combined with a soundtrack of lament; a song from the keening practice that often features in Irish funerals. Part of this, under the title ‘Lament’ (still pictured below) recently featured as part of the Manchester Open Exhibition 2020 at HOME. Joe is also working on a photo book as part of the project, featuring aerial images of the sites, some short essays and a deeply poignant chapter illustrated by his 11 year old son, sharing a child’s perspective of The Cillini.

The Lament

 What is clear is that Joe’s work opens up engagement with place, untold stories and the emotional implications of this - in a striking way. We spoke to him to find out more…

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Hello Joe. You describe yourself as an ‘artist working with the moving image’ – why did this medium compel you particularly do you think? Especially in terms of its ability to explore the strange intersection of both past, present and future in the landscape? 

“Hi Emily. I was initially drawn towards the moving image through photographic practice, of being mesmerized by stillness and form and the observation that this compelled me to undertake. I was initially drawn towards non-places, corridors, vacant spaces and the potential for narrative held within them. This led to my continuing interest in our environs and landscapes, their potential for narrative but also the historical layers embedded with them. The relationship to the still image is inherent within my moving image work as the process of looking, observing, reflecting, is key to the process of being insitu and engaging emotionally with my surroundings. This often translates itself through the pacing chosen within the editing process – at times, glacial, others more frantic, but always with the work with the exciting potential of the moving image to create an immersive experience.

“Working with the moving image allows me to bring in a range of elements and choices that evoke a range of emotions and experiences through the interplay of pacing, rhythm and sound. It’s this interplay that always intrigues me. The intersection of the past/present/future within the landscape for me fit naturally within this medium, as I want to give the viewer the space to engage with a journey, one that moves them emotionally or intellectually. In this sense of opening a space of possibility and offering traces within the landscape, it’s history and it’s potential for the future, I always focus metaphorically and conceptually on the ‘moving image’.”

Whilst your film 'Peripheries' and 'Landfill' (pictured below) explored the lives of people working around recycling from Bantar Gebang (the largest landfill site in Indonesia), the more recent 'Fractures' considers the ‘obliteration of architectural forms’. In this light, much of your work plays with the point of ‘ending’, draws death into question. Is this something you are aiming to explore in your work?

Lamdfill

“I’m naturally drawn towards narratives that contain a subtext of death within my work, at times I’m hinting at death through material existence and others as a cyclical state. Death is part of a process rather than a finite totality, death brings about change. The endlife of consumerist items for one is the start of a recycling process and economic lifeline for another. The destruction of architectural forms in ‘Fracture’ in one sense echoes the end of the modernity and at the same time, the space for something new to be created in it’s space – or to recycle its forms.

“A lot of my work harks back to experiences from my childhood, as a kid I’d often go to landfill sites with my father when he worked in demolition…..and I’d always remember the sense of desolation, the items thrown away, discarded, broken…and I’d always enjoy something about the sense of melancholy present. I’d visit scrapyards and be amazed at the cars being crushed and then re-enact the experience by placing my Dinky cars on a railway track and then retrieve the flattened pieces afterwards (there was very little sense of health and safety or much safeguarding when I was a child….we were left to our own devices and so as a coping strategy I’d often re-enact events through toys or memories from films during play in one way or another).  My father for a long time, used to work in the tunnels and then in demolition and would often be attending funerals of friends that died in the workplace. Death was always around us, through the ritualistic nature of funerals and mourning but so too was the celebration of life. Later I realized that much of my inspiration was from these experiences and encounters with place connected to the past.

“I was also influenced by Christian Boltansk’s take on Polish theatre director Tadeusz Kantor’s perception that we all carry within us a dead child. That we carry with us stories that shape us and keep being reshaped and then are reworked and reshaped continually as fact and fiction eventually erode. These memories of childplay play and encountering different forms of terrain are within my work for certain. The ending alluding to forms of death are inherent then through the evocation of the sublime, of transcendence, cycles and patterns.”

How do you regard Hauntology in relation to your practice – do you think your artistic encounter with the past has a potential haunting quality?

Hauntology relates significantly to my work as the spectres of the past linger on in the present and help shape the future. In many ways I’m trying to capture that essence and examine a psychic dimension to the world that we experience, its different layers, atmospheres and stories. I’m interested in Irit Rogoff’s work around Uncanny Geographies as well as Jean Luc Nancy’s 2005 Uncanny Landscape essay and of how absence and presence are held in a ‘productive tension.’ Image below: from The Cillini project 

The Lament “The incorporation of the Irish funereal practice of keening through the use and sampling of Kitty Gallagher’s ‘Keen for a Dead Child’ (1953) the last known recording of a traditional Irish Keen – also engages with this haunting quality, sonically augmenting and reflecting the emotional aspects of the landscape. The relationship to Hauntology is always present when considering the work I make, the relationship of absence and presence, of traces and encounters, create an experience with the familiar and everyday that allows opportunities to unearth and excavate, to peel away layers.

Your current work focuses on The Cillini – sites of unbaptised child burials spreading across rural Ireland. Why were you drawn to these sites, how have you chosen to approach them and why?

“As a child I used to go to Ireland all the time, during the summer. And quite often we’d go off rooting around the countryside near to my grandmother’s house. And she’d always tell us to stay away from the fairy forts – to break

any branches or twigs, because if we did, we’d be cursed. So of course, what did we do? We’d always come home with branches and twigs and mess around and wind our grandmother up. It was only later in life that I began to explore why there was so many stigmas and taboos and so much kind of mystery surrounding these ringfort spaces. And that’s when I began to find out that these spaces were where unchristened children were buried because they were not allowed to be buried on consecrated ground. And that’s when I began to discover more about the cilliní of Ireland.

“Through researching the use of fairy forts to bury unchristened babies I began to unearth family histories, finding out that my grandmother had siblings buried in fairy forts as well as her own infant…and then hearing stories from family friends and collating stories from oral histories and the work undertaken by archaeologists and anthropologists.

“Fairy forts and fairy trees were everywhere in rural western Ireland, each village having at least one or two...and some with hundreds of children buried within them, just a stone as a grave marker, no name, no active memorial present.

“With the babies souls being consigned to eternal limbo and not allowed to be interned on consecrated ground (in a practice that only ended in the 1960s) they were buried as close to the fairies as possible in order to give them an afterlife protected by fairies. These sites were taboo for a number of reasons, one was to protect the infants remains from being disturbed, another was due to the shame carried by families that their child was not in heaven or the stigma of failing in the role of reproductive member of the community in a society oppressed by the dogma of the church.  The personal history of my own family drew me to these sites, the taboos, curses and stigma but also tremendous sense of loss and trauma contained within the sites I encountered.

The Lament

“My cultural roots are linked to specific parts of Ireland where my family still live and can be traced back for generations. The landscape of this part of Western Ireland is bogland, barren, bleak but also beautiful in a sublime way. It’s also still sparsely depopulated with its population being less now than before the famine. Waves of migration be it forced (by Cromwell, English Colonial genocidal policies) or economic, have left their mark in the landscape and the narratives it contains (a previous film ‘Some Names are Forgotten’ scrolled the Irish language family names pre-Anglicisation while depicting images of western Ireland landscapes and deserted villages).”

From drone filmmaking and GPS mapping to animation work, your creative approaches evidently apply various layers to your encounter with the landscape. Some people might argue that this ‘distances you’ from it. How would you respond to this? 

“The approaches taken within my work have all, at points, been site-based and had an initial physical and emotional encounter. This has then been traversed through different technologies – from the analogue to digital, from mapping and locative emergent technologies. The GPS mapping in works such as ‘Landfill’, ‘Peripheries’ and ‘Tracing Ordos’ have formed from the act of walking and my physical interaction with space. I used GPS to map out the journeys that communities working in the informal economies of trashpicking around Jakarta and Bantar Gebang took each day – and animated the points while placing aurally their experiences.

“For ‘Ordos Traces’, I walked the map of the government cordon around the site of the 2011 Oslo bomb blast. I photographed at intervals as I traced the map, I then processed the negatives, glued them to the soles of my shoes and rewalked the cordon from memory. My walk became a performative encounter with this site – with the negatives containing marks of destruction which when scanned, edited and animated bore witness to the violent act carried out. I also engaged with a similar process when I walked up Anak Krakatau in 2011, I wrapped 35mm film strips around my feet and then scanned and printed the results. The images carried within them a reference to the destructive relationship to the past embedded within the landscape of Krakatau – and hinted to future tectonic upheaval. In this sense, the relationship to hauntology was central to a conceptual reading of the work.

Oslo Trace“Many Cillini sites are difficult to access – either due to being across bogland fields or being surrounded by trees (most famers won’t cut the trees around the sites due to fear of fairy curses) – the drone allows access to the sites and makes visible the invisible. As the older generation that are aware of the nature of local cillini sites pass away the significance of revealing the social and cultural importance of these sites becomes more pressing so that the trauma of the past can be reconciled somehow and the memory form of remembering can take place and they can take shape in our cultural and collective consciousness.

 “Using the drone allowed access but it also created a sensory experience as the viewer floats through space with the drone – ascending and descending through space, forming and engaging with a hypnotic pacing that places the in-between nature, liminality, limbo as central to the experience of the work. As part of the editing process I edited over different days without sleeping so the my perceptual responses to the images would reside in this state. The drone footage is also edited and re-edited in a loop mirroring as cultural memory theorist Victoria Allen called the memory movement of reappearing, resurfacing and returning to these sites.

“I’m currently working on a VR installation – where viewers will wear a headset and be transported to the interior of a cillin – where they will be able to sit and reflect on the space around them, its atmosphere, its tensions, its beauty, whilst also hearing narratives from different people telling of their own experiences of infant loss and bereavement. The Cillini sites then become healing places and help to temove the stigma around stillborn or infant mortality and the impact on wellbeing and mental health.”

To see more of Joe Duffy’s work, visit the website: https://joeduffy.co.uk/

Images provided by Joe Duffy

Article by Emily Oldfield 

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