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11 July 2024

Report on a research trip: a-n Curator Bursary, Northern Ireland 2024

Christy Eóin O’Beirne

In May this year, I was one of eight curators selected to take part in a-n (The Artists Information Company)’s first curator research trip. Designed to encourage UK-wide exchange and collaboration, the trip connected the curators with artists and colleagues in Belfast and Derry~Londonderry, opening opportunities for talent exchange.

Our cohort included Becca Clark, Benedetta d’Ettorre, Lily Hall, James Harper, Louise Hobson, Natalia Palombo, Zoe Watson, and myself, Metroland Cultures’ Assistant Curator Christy Eóin O’Beirne. All of the curators were working across different disciplines and hailed from various towns and cities across England, Scotland, and Wales, representing organisations such as Liverpool Biennial, East Street Arts, The Lowry, and Peak Cymru. A common thread between the curators was an emphasis on collaboration and community within our practices, as well as a collective interest in the art and social ecology of Northern Ireland. Some also saw parallels and resonances between Belfast, Derry~Londonderry, and the contexts within which we work or live.

Thomas Wells, part of the selection panel for the trip, as well as one of the 11 artists forming the 2021 Turner Prize-winning Array Collective.

I was hugely excited to apply for this research trip as the geopolitical and physiographic profile of Northern Ireland, and more broadly, the island of Ireland, deeply resonates with my curatorial research and offers fertile ground for my continued investigations. 

Specifically, I was eager to explore the ways in which collective memory manifests within Belfast and Derry, as well as tracing trade routes, symbolised by Belfast’s docklands and echoed in PS2’s ongoing Water Works project1. In my research I’m really fascinated by the politics of language and shibboleth2 – present in the very names ‘Derry’ or ‘Derry~Londonderry’. I was keen to uncover the confidences, alliances and defiances we give away, temporarily allay, or subtly betray, when words form in our throats and fall from our lips.

Furthermore, through collaborations with artists in exhibition-making or longer-term projects, I am interested in seeing them interrogate and rearticulate the notion of ‘diaspora’ through the combined lenses of land, language and mourning. This is a pursuit deeply rooted in my second-generation Irish identity, something that seeps into all of my work, and is particularly pertinent in my role at Metroland Cultures in Kilburn, an area of massive historical Irish migration. So, perhaps more personally, the research trip offered me the invaluable opportunity to reconnect with the land in which my father grew up, providing a conduit that bridges the geographical and emotional distances that have marked my family history.

I was also intrigued to learn more about the decade following Derry’s year as City of Culture, as well as the after-effects of Belfast 24. Having grown up in the city of Bradford, West Yorkshire, I am interested in reckoning with a fractured civic identity, adopting culture-led regeneration, and the sustainability and legacy of the designation. This is particularly relevant as my home city leads up to its own City of Culture programme in 2025. 

The trip was guided and hosted by PS2, a fantastic artist-led collective, studio-resource, and organiser of year-round, on-and-offsite arts programming that connects art and society in the centre of Belfast. They arranged 1:1 and group studio visits between us and local artists, as well as an itinerary comprising tours of galleries and artist-run spaces and discussions with those who run them, encouraging conversation, reflection, discussion, and debate. 

On the first day of the trip we were introduced in greater depth to PS2 ‘s work by its wonderful Co-Directors, Jane Morrow and Davy Mahon. I saw reassuring and exciting parallels between PS2 ‘s work and Metroland’s, as well as developing a picture of some of the inspiring initiatives they facilitate that could potentially be transferred into the context of Kilburn. PS2 offers affordable and long-term studio space for 10 professional artists and three year-long residencies for a curator, critical writer and collective and, not only do they support artists in their development as practitioners, but they have an unwavering passion for bridging art and community. They do this through long-term, participatory projects directly within neighbourhoods – PeasPark, North Belfast and Ballykinler – and cultural events and workshops that focus on hyper-local issues and the specific urban and social environments within which they work. PS2 has a project space that, much like Metroland’s, acts as an extension of the studios, enabling artists to germinate an audience while experimenting and showcasing their research and ongoing work as and when it emerges.

A salient similarity between PS2 and Metroland is the two organisations’ existence in precarious ‘meanwhile’ spaces. The former exists under the constant threat of destruction, operating on the plot of a planned 35-storey skyscraper as part of Tribeca’s £500 million investment plan for the area. In some ways it is reassuring more than worrying to see another organisation working in a temporary space, galvanised by its ephemerality and using this as an impetus around which to shape its programming and vision. 

I was really struck, and admittedly caught off guard, by the expanse of studio provision across the city of Belfast. Many of the organisations providing studio space have been running for over 30 years, demonstrating the absolute resilience of the artist community that upholds them, but also the necessity of being able to make art work. 

On day two of the trip, we were introduced to Catalyst Arts by artist and Chair of Catalyst’s Board, Husk Bennett. A voluntary, artist-led organisation that operates on a model of temporary, rolling directorship, Catalyst is grounded in collaboration and community, with an emphasis on promoting and supporting Northern Irish artists. Catalyst runs a programme of exhibitions, residencies and events, off-site projects and an outreach programme. Husk talked about Catalyst’s ‘layers of stewardship’, both in protecting and supporting Catalyst’s artists, its legacy and archives, the physical structure of the building, and their right to remain there. Close proximity – both geographical and in a supportive sense – dictates the art ecosystem of Belfast. I learnt that whereas in places like Cardiff and Glasgow art spaces are pushed out of the centre, it is almost a contractual necessity for Belfast’s art organisations to stay geographically central in the city, because of the perceived political neutrality that this implies. 

We spent an afternoon navigating the expansive Queen Street Studios (QSS), meeting over 25 artists who shared their practices with us, speaking about their work, showing us examples of recent projects or giving us a sneak peak into emerging ideas and material experimentations. We met artists like Joy Gerrad – whose practice ‘investigates different systems of relations between crowds, architecture and the built environment’, specifically looking at protest crowds and occupations in urban spaces and representing them with ink –  and Anushiya Sundaralingam, whose mixed media works are influenced by displacement, response and adaptation. She represents the ‘intricate and layered nature of belonging, identity, place, and conflict’.

At The MAC, Belfast’s primary cultural hub and ‘a beacon for the ongoing regeneration of Belfast’, we saw their brilliant current exhibition, mother tongue, which showcased some of the most exciting artistic practices in Northern Ireland. We were given a tour by exhibition curator Ciara Hickey, who is also Co-Director of Household, a collectively-led organisation that supports the production of art that connects people and place, through its delivery and production of art in the public realm. 

On the third day, we travelled by train to Derry. At Void, we were introduced to two of their team, PS2 Board and Array Collective member Mitch Conlan and previous Catalyst Co-Director Cecilia Graham. They told us about the organisation’s ongoing visible process of reframing;  ‘future-proofing’ it for the times and conditions through a process of de-institutionalising. This entails a ‘living practice of Social Permaculture’, upheld by three key pillars: earth care, people care and fair share. Their organisational structure is ‘based on models of co-existence and co-creation as well as sustainable use of local resources (both monetary and non-monetary) such as public grants, voluntary commitments, mutual aid, commercial arrangement, and private sponsorship.’ Their visual display referenced Chto Delat’s Times, Lines, 1989s at CCA Glasgow in 2019 – which explored how people register themselves in relation to recent history and examined ways in which to build alternative historical narratives collectively – and, in turn, Group Material’s AIDS Timeline, 1989 which sought to produce a counter-memory and ‘misrecogni[s]e history itself [as] an integral part of their resistance on remaking artistic values’. This concept and production of a counter-memory seemed particularly pertinent to me in Derry, a city whose name has, on the exterior, almost become an inextricable, unescapable linguistic shorthand for the violence and tragedy that has engulfed its history.

CCA Derry~Londonderry is an impressive art centre with an ambitious and international-facing exhibition programme, and somewhere I’d been eager to visit for a long time. Director Catherine Hemelryk told us about the five programme streams operated by the centre: research and production, exhibition-making, public programmes, publishing, and residencies. In 2021, CCA was announced as a finalist for the Art Fund Museum of the Year 2021, the world’s largest museum prize, and it has backed this up with an array of exciting programming since. Immediately following the nomination, CCA opened Fugitive Seeds, an exhibition considering how ‘endemic, alien and fugitive seeds connect to colonial histories including in Northern Ireland and more specifically Derry~Londonderry and its port’. Although I never saw this exhibition (this was my first visit to Derry!), the ideas presented within it are central to my research. Specifically, how it considers ‘changing ecologies and (national) identities through stories of belonging, displacement and uprootedness and investigate the feeling of loss when thinking about the connections with far-away lands that might hold clues for one’s identity.’

Back in Belfast, on the penultimate day of the trip, I held one-to-one studio visits with two artists. One holds a studio space in Flax. Operating for 30 years and currently home to over 50 contemporary visual artists, with a focus on sculpture having originally been set up for large-scale installation, Flax is complete with incredible workshop facilities that allow for work made using wood, plaster, casting, digital fabrication and textile. The studio building and all of its facilities burnt down in 2003, and it has moved several times since, settling for the moment in two adjacent buildings in the Linen Quarter in 2022. 

On the final evening of the trip, all of the connections we’d made coalesced for Late Night Art, a monthly celebration of art and culture throughout the city’s art spaces including Golden Thread Gallery, Belfast Exposed and, one of Belfast’s younger studio spaces, Vault. It was brilliant to see the familiar faces of those we’d met throughout the trip, both in Belfast and Derry, coming together to support each other. It almost felt like a microcosm of the ethos of mutual support that the Northern Irish art scene is built upon. 

I think my greatest takeaway from the trip was the impression that organisations like PS2 and Catalyst Arts have a genuine dedication to an ethos of collaboration and support, for artists and audiences alike, consistently integrating intelligent and nuanced points of access and resonance for their local communities into their organisational work. For me, it is also heartening and frankly inspiring to see artists from regions marked by conflict, repressed by silence and sustained by resilience, emerge burning with the potential energy to shape the art world at large. I am thrilled to see young Northern Irish artists draw from their contexts and histories to create innovative, contemporary expressions that reverberate well beyond their homeland. 

Written with massive thanks and gratitude to the seven other curators, with whom it was a pleasure to spend a week learning with and from, to Jane and Davy from PS2 and Ciara Hickey from Household, Julie and Wing-Sie from a-n and, especially, all of the artists, curators, cultural workers and B&B hosts met on route. 

1 a ‘mass-participation project which reimagines our maritime traditions with citywide events, workshops, and an ambition to build 10,000 boats for Belfast – from life-size skiffs, to milk-bottle rafts, Coke-can dinghies and shoebox yachts.’ www.waterworks.sit

2 ‘a custom, principle, or belief distinguishing a particular class or group of people’ – ‘from Hebrew šibbōleṯ ‘ear of corn’, used as a test of nationality by its difficult pronunciation’.