It is exactly two years ago since I graduated with a PhD in Art and Design from Manchester School of Art, completing my doctoral research practice film A Place Where Ghosts Dwell, a film I would loosely describe as an essay film. Where Ghosts Dwell explores the relationship between my hometown Longford as a marginalised place, and post-property collapse unfinished housing estates and vacant commercial property as troubling spaces. I refer to them as ‘ghost developments’, and their prevalence in Longford is what drew me back to my hometown to conduct fieldwork research and film production in the historically significant year of 2015 (the year of the same-sex marriage equality referendum). Whilst there, I finally came to terms with my personal history, reconciled and fully embraced my sexual identity, and learnt to rediscover my birthplace – a place that had deeply damaged me in the past. Indeed, while some people in Longford have read the film as a negative portrayal of the place, I feel it is anything but. A read through my PhD thesis will confirm my nuanced but ultimately positive appraisal of Longford, a town which is fascinating for very many reasons. (see PhD text here: https://goo.gl/kfVJTo )
A Place Where Ghosts Dwell from Paddy Baxter on Vimeo.
It is perhaps a good place to start this blog post by acknowledging a long period of absence from this medium. States of Vacancy was set up as a space to explore issues, ideas and directions I was encountering through-out my practice-led PhD artistic research project, however the rigours of bringing to completion an ambitious and complex project that included writing up a dissertation and constructing a feature-length documentary film dictated that the blog would remain a lesser priority. Anyone who has done a PhD or has been around a loved one doing a PhD will know the extent to which it completely consumes your life – indeed at times I felt like doing one is akin to suffering from a mental illness, if that is not too hyperbolic. Nevertheless, the film is now finished, all writing and practice is submitted, I have been conferred with my doctorate, and can now move on to the business of putting my film and research out into the world.
On that note, I would like to draw your attention to an event that takes place in Manchester on July 3rd called Spectral Traces: Absent Presence, Ruins and Ghost Spaces. As the title might suggest, the event is an exploration of the growing artistic and academic interest in ruinous spaces, the effects of post-industrial and failed speculative development on our built-environment, and the notion of the absent presence that haunts the many abandoned structures and spaces created by shifts in global economic development. Whilst there remains an abundance of scholarly research that confronts the profound disruptive sociological and geographic effects the neoliberal model of economic development, I feel there remains a paucity of work that examines our sense of place in relation to macro-economic and political forces. Both of the research projects featured in Spectral Traces attempt to redress this balance by focusing to varying degrees on the notion of ‘home’ as a most intimate place that can tell us a lot about the relationship between place and space, and how our experience of home is shaped by uneven economic development and the failure of neoliberal policies.
Note: Updated version of article. Please watch using headphones or decent speakers.
A street barely illuminated. Slow rumble of traffic in the near distance- cars, bodies, leisure, decadence. A residential fortress menacing above. Escape inside. The floorboards creek. A heavy lift door screeches. Cymbals crash. Murmurs, whispers, then silence. Click record, Edirol R9. Concentration and display. Directionals on the staircase, contacts inside a kickdrum. The Leica lens floats, and pulls to halt. Some figures stomp about ethereally. Zoom in, focus and pan. Feedback from the strings, movement disorientated now. The plaster crumbling in my hands. Cobwebs on my face. Faintly audible, out of focus, in darkness now, cease recording. Improv House.
On the 22nd of May the Irish electorate will vote in a referendum on same-sex marriage equality, extending the constitutional protection of civil marriage to all citizens of the Republic without distinction as to their sex or sexuality. This of course is a historic moment for Irish society; if the constitutional amendment is passed it will represent a further advancement for tolerance and plurality in the Republic, and hopefully be another death knell to the repressive Catholic guilt ridden and socially conservative Ireland that came into being in the early years of independence, and of which lurks still in the psycho-body of much of Ireland’s social fabric. Referenda on social and civil matters (divorce, and the continuing hot potatoe of abortion) are a common feature of the Republic’s political landscape. Traditionally these referenda have evidenced a distinct urban/rural divide in the country- the urban social progressive vote vs the rural conservative articulation. However, there remains the possibility of a breakdown of this sharp divide, due to not only an increasingly socially tolerant, less faith orientated Irish citizenry but furthermore as a consequence of the spatial urbanization of rural Ireland post-Celtic Tiger, albeit a precarious, uneven and disjointed sort of urbanization.
What follows is a series of research sketches, avenues, questions and ideas. The post is intended to be fairly open-ended as many of these research interests are in their infancy and will be built-upon or continue to be addressed in future posts.
Following the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, Ireland experienced one of the worst property collapses in recorded history. In the subsequent years, unfinished housing estates- popularly referred to as ‘ghost estates’- became one of the central visual tropes through which the economic crash was represented in Ireland. Newspapers and TV reports abounded with stark images of empty, half built or shells of houses through-out the Republic of Ireland. However, in recent years we seem to have become remarkable demur about these spaces- I would argue that a kind of collective amnesia has taken hold of the wider public, or at least a very blind eye has been turned towards the high rates of property vacancy. That said, in the last year there appears to a conscious shift in political and economic discourse on housing in a wider sense in the country. Many will be aware that Dublin is experiencing a renewed property crisis, this time round in the guise of a housing shortage in the capital- coupled of course with rising rents and house prices, and huge profits being amassed by those that benefit from property speculation. Although the government has recently introduced mortgage lending control legislation, no attempt has been made to tackle the issue of rent controls in the country. The problem of the lack of social housing has been raised by a number of academic and social organisations, particular by those researchers attached to NIRSA (National Institute for Regional and Spatial Analysis), however this has not as of yet had a significant impact on Government social policy. Furthermore, the issue of ‘ghost estates’ is again topical, with a number of the more spectacular of that phenomenon currently cited for demolition.
Access to Carrigglas Manor grounds is relatively painless. The old wall that surrounds the 660 acre site is a thing of crumbling beauty. Although signs alert you to how dangerous it is, few of these inform you how also how porous it is. My dog and I enter from an opening in a fenced-off break in the wall, past those signs, some concrete bollards, climb carefully down and up a small mossy slope into the woodlands of Carrigglas manor, mindful of the stills camera I’ve brought with me. I have visited the failed development at Carrigglas a few times before, however, on this occasion I am searching out the old manor building itself . A clearing through the woods, in fact a well-heeled woodland path is flanked on either side by a thick body of beech trees and sturdy ash. In my work as a craftsperson I regularly go for long wanders in many of County Longford’s unspoilt and tranquil woodlands to gather organic materials I use to create my jewelry. So I was pleasantly surprised at this private woodlands at Carrigglas; the scale and undisturbed beauty of the place. Towards the end of the pathway as a clearing in the woods appeared to be on the horizon an even greater shock was in store.
Move along the narrow, cracked paths. The canal slow flowing stench intoxicates. The street lights offer solace to subterfuge. Walkways reveal the non-human animals colonising subterranean space. Glass fronted apartments see the great and good peer over the city stripped of its function. This cradle of industry. Shards of light pixelate. The noise of underground carparks release sudden and disconcerting blasts. Search through time in-between space, the factories that once housed mechanisms of steel and toxic petro-chemicals. Where men, for they were mostly men, daily inhaled slow consuming death. Now? Regenerated, but what has been generated? Two distant classes move uneasily alongside each other in this ‘classless’ society. The once glorious, now shells of production, the forlorn canal ways separate the towers of media movers and university students from the low rise labyrinth of the dispossessed ‘jobseekers’. Production has ceased but exploitation, social disparity and surveillance merrily breathe.