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The Vacuum - Issue 15 - God spacer The Vacuum - Issue 15 - God
Archive Belfast
by John Gray
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A sunny Saturday morning in Donegall Street. Much bustle the Lord Mayor's show is assembling. There are the horses and carriage, a tribute to past-imagined civic pomp. Androgynous rubber figures inflate on the backs of lorries, girls and boys with painted faces skip impatiently in ersatz tribute to far off Notting Hill or Rio, and our civic carnival of optimism defies both history and present reality. That is to be found a few yards further down the street where the stench of burning still surrounds the ruins of North Street Arcade, and the angry posters of homeless artists flutter in the breeze.
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It's a useful juxtaposition as an entrée to the Hils exhibition in Belfast Exposed's fine new gallery, just a short stroll further down Donegall Street. As Pauline Hadaway and Karen Downey explain in the introduction to the lavish catalogue, the concept behind the commissioning of Hils was an exploration of 'what kind of city is emerging from three decades of violent conflict' under the working title 'Belfast becoming past, Belfast becoming future'.
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Hils has chosen to penetrate our condition not merely through creating an archive of photographs but through an exploration of archives themselves. His approach has all the appearances of being archival itself. These photographs are clinical, unpeopled, and apparently psychologically distanced. Yet there is no doubt about the particular focus of Hils's interest: the one photograph from my own Linen Hall Library is of crates marked 'Troubled Images Tour' and conveniently marked with upward pointing arrows!
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A number of photographs emphasise the bureaucratic processes of official archive creation, and re-emphasise the impersonal nature of these processes. There is the blank screen against which police mug shots are taken, there are bundles of wires running into a computer server, microphones, microfilm cabinets, racks of files, rows of bound newspapers, and CCTV monitor screens. Taken with exacting precision, they are not of themselves much more than records of the omnipresent ways in which we are archived, and principally by the institutions of the state. Collectively this aspect of the exhibition does create an underlying sense of threat and surveillance.
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There is a considerable disjunction between this official archiving and the main focus of Hils's attention, which is actually on unofficial archives and collections. The Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, our principal official archive does not feature here, but the headquarters of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland, and of the Irish Republican Socialist Party do. Our main museums are absent, but we visit the People's Museum at the top of the Shankill, the museum of the Royal Ulster Rifles, and Clonard Monastery and Conway Mill. Unofficial extends even further into private houses, and even buildings become part of the archive, as with the City Hall or the old Law Courts, pictured very effectively after the recent arson attack.
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Even in visiting such places, Hils concentrates, and to great advantage, on the least organised parts, on the odd corners or 'lumber rooms' where material has apparently been dumped by random accretion. In the People's Museum an aged bicycle leans against a partly concealed loyalist placard of indeterminate date. Even at police headquarters the storeroom of the Historical Society with police dummies, old uniforms, miscellaneous paintings, and so on, is unofficial space. In the IRSP headquarters, they have their 'official' spaces, but the detritus of agitprop laid down almost in sedimentary layers in an attic is much more interesting.
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Certainly in all this the process by which the essentials of action today become cast-offs, which may then become part of the archive, and part of our history is revealed. What is far less evident is any capacity in Hils's approach to reveal an emerging or different future. Diametrically opposed institutions do tell parallel stories. Thus the IRSP waiting room is dominated by forbidding posters of dead hunger strikers and assassination victims. Faintly reflected in police CCTV monitors are the uncannily similar photographs of dead policemen. It would be too much to impose on this the possibility of a better future based on a common acknowledgement of suffering.
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A particularly fine photograph from the City Hall suggests how difficult it is to create new ways forward. We see part only of a fine Neil Shawcross portrait of David Cooke, our first non-Unionist Lord Mayor, at the end of the 1970s. The portrait was intended as a direct contrast to the dreary traditional portraits of our first citizens. But in the Hils photograph, alongside the fragment of Shawcross, is the more dominant elaborately gilded frame of one of the traditional paintings. We can't actually see any of this, but reflected in the glass is a group of war medals. Even in an era when we have now had a Sinn Fein Lord Mayor, it is difficult to change the City Hall.
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This may be a metaphor for the city, and it may be that archives, however broadly understood, contain as many uncomfortable truths as they do deceptions.
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