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.
What the film is critical of is the political and social economy of Ireland in relation to property and our understanding of what it is to dwell; what home means. Some people were disappointed the film did not go the typical expository route of laying blame for Ireland’s financial crisis and property collapse at the door of developers, speculators, bankers, and politicians. This was not what was interesting to me, we know the role all of the above played in the traumatic events of 2008. What was of interest to me was to make a piece of art that reflected back to the Irish public/body politic the country’s regressive attitudes to property. The house is almost solely viewed in Ireland as an asset or investment rather than as a home.
Unfortunately, things have deteriorated in Ireland since I made the film. The government continues to pursue a housing policy that singularly favours the market as the sole provider of housing in Ireland despite the glaringly obvious fact that it was neoliberal free market economics that caused the collapse in the first place. Evictions are a daily occurrence in Ireland and homelessness has gone beyond a crisis. Rents in the capital are spiralling out of control. There is very little in the way of social housing, zero housing co-operatives, squatting is outlawed entirely, the government refuses to introduce even modest rent controls, and the country is still littered with vacant houses.
At the base of this is the problem of social attitudes to housing. Property ownership is considered almost the sole route to citizenship in Ireland, and any alternative to the model of owner-occupancy is ridiculed and/or dismissed. Some public hostility to the tactics of the housing/social justice activist group Take Back the City is evidence of this. We desperately need to have a conversation about the future of housing and look into alternative models of living because basing economic policy on endless construction, property speculation and zero tax for FDI companies is not a sustainable model.
Ireland will find itself back in 2008 very soon. What is needed is a revolution of public consciousness, a radical transformation of the lived experience in Ireland. We have shown we can do it when it comes to embracing same-sex marriage and reproductive rights for women, why do we stumble so badly when it comes to housing rights? A Place Where Ghosts Dwell goes some way to unpacking this problem and at the very least is a contribution to this debate.
The film is available online for free below, and I will repost several times over the coming weeks as I feel it still needs to find its audience. I have moved on to an artistic research project called Manchester Penetrated and that, coupled with work in sexual health and Queer activism consumes most of my time and leaves very little room to promote Where Ghosts Dwell and find its public. I am very happy for activist groups, social organisations, academics and other interested parties to screen the film publicly – if you would like to do this simply contact me directly and I will get you a high-resolution copy of the film, and where possible come speak at your event. If you want to screen from the below link and are based in Guatemala for instance just let me know and I’ll see how best I can help you. I hope that the film will help you explore housing as social space in your home place and contribute to a global perspective that sees access to housing for all as one of the most pressing social justice issues of our age.