Ilaria Sponda: What’s the scope of photography (and video) in your care and research along the Irish borderlands? Can you tell me how you use them to relate to young people?
Kate Nolan: Well, I’ve been doing it for six years now, so the scope is vast. There’s so much photographic work and video work in my archives, as well as recorded conversations I’ve collected for Lacuna. For this project, I started to work in Pettigo because it’s a village split in two by the border, which makes no actual physical difference now, with no infrastructure on the border, a fluid space. When I went there in 2015, I was trying to figure out what I was exactly I was going to do. I was meeting with adults in the area, interviewing them, and I noticed they had a very strong narrative that they want to express about the border. Their concept of what kind of space it is now, and in the past. Coming to the borderlands as an outsider – I’d never been to the border region before and knew little about the situation – I was interested in researching the possible future of this space. Then Brexit happened and everything was disrupted. I soon started working with a youth group and with the local primary school teaching photography and conversing about the border situation. The youth group in Pettigo is where the conversations started. They were like between eight and fourteen and they were amazing! Pettigo is a very small village so they get loads of support, everyone knows everyone. I just wanted to find out what the kids thought. The first time they chatted for forty-five minutes and then we played around with cameras. I then started working in a primary school, Social Mhuire. I was working with 4th-6th class, doing a lot around representation. I have a real fear around working with young people and within these institutions as well. I get total ‘yes’ from them all the time but I don’t think people really understand what I’m doing so there are fears around real consent. That’s why I have the pedagogical part of my work. I teach them about representation, portraiture, where the work can go and get them to create works. I brought small prints from the history of documentary photography and tried to get them thinking a bit more about images. They then went out to try and reinterpret the images and they loved it. I did two or three sessions with them and then a session with the final year group, with whom I took portraits. Working with young people is great fun, they’re very engaged and smart. It was really intense within what was happening within the UK, in Europe and here in Ireland with Brexit, but for them, it was just nothing. Especially at that kind of age, they can’t really think about what the future is for them. They were all born after the Good Friday Agreement, so they don’t really know the story. I mean they do, especially in Pettigo, because that’s where the customs border was, so they’ve heard the stories. It was amazing working with the children, everyone trusted me, they became very open and were happy within that space. They had never held a Culture Night in Pettigo before our event in 2017. I had given a workshop around family photographs and asked the kids to get an image from their family archive and present it. I put together a video of the work that I’ve done in Pettigo so far and I presented that. They didn’t really know what I was doing and they kept thinking I was an American journalist (cause I lived in the States) and I’m an Irish artist. Then I worked in a secondary school in County Louth and a primary school in Co. Down, Northern Ireland. I did two very different things there because in the North the kids were very young, around eight so we did a creative writing and photography workshop and with the secondary school we had conversations about their future and photography workshops, with one walking along the contested lough. The young kids would write short stories and I would photograph them performing their stories. I was supposed to go back in Spring 2020 but haven’t worked with them since Covid started.
IS: Could you say a little about the different types of material that you have?
KN: I have lots of interviews that I started transcribing over the summer. The work I’ve done with the kids has been carried out in three different schools and two different youth groups. I came up with the idea of working with the physical line of the border on a map and removing all the information. It then became just about the shape of a line on that in reality is an invisible line, a constructive line. I got the idea of playing with the line of the border from my partner, who’s an animator, where I would draw a single line on a page and then he would create something or someone. We used to play that in our years of long-distance travels. So I came up with the idea of using that game with the line of the border and I’ve played with this everywhere. I used it with the kids in the schools, I had a residency in San Francisco and I did it there during open studios with the public. It was just a way for people to physically engage with the border and create something. It’s a way to take power on it, and especially for the young people, it becomes metaphorically their space so they can create something out of it. I now have this massive stack of drawings. I had an exhibition in Market Place Arts Centre, Armagh, which is a border space where historically, during the Troubles, a lot of conflicts happened. In the gallery, I had an empty wall and a table with a stack of border line pages, basic instructions, markers and pens and as people created work, I started to hang those drawings with clips as and installation within the exhibition. People were really engaging with the work and what I was trying to express. With that amount of content that I have, there’s so much of it that I don’t know what I’m going to do with it all. It wasn’t exactly made for exhibition work. The whole project always used to be about still images but now it’s all about the experiential exhibition and as I’m coming to a conclusion of the work, I’m thinking about it as a book and then what things might come into that, that don’t sit in the exhibition. It’s crazy to look back at mid-2016 and realise how much I have. And then I’ve been exhibiting it as I’ve been creating it during these dramatic political shifts so there are different stages of the work.
IS: Words and images seem to be a constant in your practice. How do they collaborate in conveying meanings and stories? How much of reality and fiction result from their encounter?
KN: One of the largest things to mention is that I’m an outsider. So coming into a space and trying to represent it when you haven’t been brought up in, the separation is big. In Pettigo I was interviewing a girl who was about to go to college. I was commissioned a book project and asked her about this separation in Pettigo. She said it was not visible but continuing speaking said that the primary school there is one for everybody, for who lives in the north and the south. But once they go to secondary school if they live in the north they got o the north and if they live in the south they go to the south. So they are segregated at that time and then when they go to university if they’ve been grown up in the north they go to Belfast or the UK, if they are in the south they go to Galway, Dublin, Cork etc. So this creates segregation. So it is visible. They just don’t know it’s there. I don’t understand that. While I believe photography can do a lot, I think texts can bring a whole new layer. I read a lot of literature, fictional and non-fictional around the spaces I work in. I’m reading this book called Thin Places by Kerry ní Dochartaight, a beautiful writer from Derry, and she’s writing her memoir about growing up in Derry. It’s kind of a mix between nature writing and Troubles memoir. I was also reading C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. He was inspired by the area that these children lived in because he would go on holidays there. This big magical forest in the mountains where there’s a big lake, Carlingford Lough, was inspiring to me. I’m very interested in how words ad literature and how these forms can come together to create different means. Beautiful and poetic things are possible. Another big thing is that I think these young people with such a huge issue of the border and what can happen and what the future is going to be are not spoken out, so I also wanted to give them a space to talk about what it is for them. Maybe it’s not always direct, it might be things like if they had border how would they get to their granny. Working with the kids from Rostrevor, a beautiful area separated from the border, I wanted them to think more about the whole history of the landscape.
There’s a Celtic mythological story about the Cloughmore stones. There are mountains on both sides of the lough and they’re up in the Mourne’s mountains. There’s this story of Fionn Mac Cumhaill, who’s a giant, and then there’s Ruscaire whom he’s scared of. Fionn Mac Cumhaill starts to see this long shadow across the lake and he looks over and he sees the giant that is the same as him but different. They fight and one gets killed. It’s a nice allegory to think about this separation between Protestants and Catholics. I got the kids to write a short story thinking about this episode and how they could learn from each other. I was moving from the documentary to something more. I don’t think documentary photography is necessarily enough. The media is doing a very specific representation and the governments in Northern Ireland and the UK, and here are doing a very specific representation. So activating a space for kids to verbalise and think about their borderland situation is necessary. For example, they were not talking about Brexit and the border situation in the secondary school I went to work in. Maybe they were talking about that at home with their parents. Who knows.
IS: One of the citations from your ongoing project Lacuna says: “What if there was a hard border tomorrow? / I know exactly what I would do. I’d go around it / I’d climb a tree / I’d swim / I’d hide in the back of a car.” It made me think of the role of intuition to survive certain situations, find solutions and consequently adapt. Nurturing intuition help to educate young people on criticality and non-conformist behaviour, and so to be creative, which has always been seen as a danger by structures of power. How do you feel a project like this could foster their creative and critical thoughts?
KN: I was taking part in this ‘cross-border weekend’ in County Donegal organised by the Irish Central Border Area Network (ICBAN). They brought me up there to work. This group was working with literature as well, getting the kids to read short stories. There were kids from the north and the south. Some of those from the north never crossed the border before and they were terrified.
One of the facilitators asked that question that you mention. People talk about border areas as bandit country and have a very strong concept of what a border is, but most of them don’t really know. People cross them all the time but it’s that history of the British army with massive guns, the IRA and sectarian murders. When I started doing a project in Russia, that’s when I understood what a border is. You’re asking me a big question. I don’t know. I can only see what happens when I’m there, not afterwards. Even with showing them the work during the Culture Night in 2017, I don’t know how I was going to foster their creative and critical thoughts. I know that through my work one could see something else. I’m quite interested in teaching photography and I think it should be taught in primary and secondary schools anyway. I think having those conversations on their borderland (outside of the actual project) is about what photography can do. There’s so much going on social media and how people present themselves. Having these conversations about where they are and what happened before and what the future could be could help them verbalising things. For myself, I started to understand things more through discussing them. I learnt so much from those young people. Indeed, a lot of what I did with photography and video was in response to conversations with them.
IS: How are these images received by them?
KN: I got a good reception. In all of this work, there are very few images of the young people I worked with. The work is not so documentary, it’s more psychological. If I think of the secondary school’s pupils, I reckon they are more concerned about how they look in pictures but I remove them if they don’t want them to be used. Indeed, I’m concerned with consent and I did classes around representation so that they would have been prepared and conscious enough for me to work with them. It is through education that they can be taught and understand representation. They aren’t aesthetic about these images I took for my research, while they’re more concerned about those uploaded on Instagram, for example.
IS: How did Lacuna come about? What made you start?
KN: At that time I was working in the north and did a lot travelling up and down. I started to realise that there is, very definitely, two different countries on our small island. It didn’t feel like it could be so different. In the work that I’ve done in Kaliningrad, there’s a lot about these spaces in flux and borders. I wanted to know what happens in the space where two countries come together or overlap. I spoke to a friend, an archaeologist, and he mentioned Pettigo and I began my research.
St. Patrick’s purgatory is nearby Pettigo and is the first job of a large majority of the young adults of Pettigo. It is considered one of the hardest pilgrimage sites within Europe out on a tiny island in Lough Derg. So there’s this big catholic thing and this small little village (Pettigo) split by the river not far away from there. I went in 2015 to the purgatory and stayed in the village. I came back in January 2016. I wasn’t sure what exactly I was going to say with my project so I just started talking with locals about this kind of in-betweenness and this space. Then Brexit came and it felt like I had to continue. The work started going alongside the political conversation. They didn’t even know what to say and there weren’t answers to my questions. There were millions of questions. The media was insane in Pettigo because it’s the only village split by a border. Indeed, there was media from everywhere in this tiny village. I went there till late 2017 and went to Carlingford Lough later in 2018. I should now be working in the final area in South. I kind of went everywhere but I liked the idea of focusing on three spaces. The reason why I’m focusing lastly on South Armagh is that it was one of the most difficult spaces during the Troubles and it is the space where I didn’t feel comfortable to make work in or engage with the community until I had a stronger knowledge of their history.
IS: Borders reflect and reproduce geographies of exclusion and inclusion. In the case of the Irish-UK border, no walls, metal gates, glass windows or barbed wires are designating the border, although its effects are proven by a social dimension that you are delving into with your enquiry. What have you experienced so far in close contact with a local community of young people living along a border?
KN: So Pettigo is a rural community very different from Derry, the big city where the Troubles started. A young woman, whom I interviewed lived in Brittons Bar, which is a pub on the border, physically hanging over the river. Her grandparents lived there during the Troubles and had a little garden plot on the north side, so the granny would put on her wellies and illegally walk through the river to go there. The bridge would have been a difficult space to find yourself in, as anything that crosses the river is. There would have been bombs that would have gone off and would blow out the windows of that pub. So when I met with her, asking her what she thought the future of this place could be, she was then telling me about how she’d hated if that happened, because the windows of her home could be blown out again. She was seventeen and talking about bombs and windows being blown out. She hadn’t seen it but it was still within her social, historical, familial memory. While if I speak to the young people around Carlingford Lough, in Cooley Peninsula, for example, being so far away from the border they would give me different answers. I thought after working in Pettigo for about three years, that I could transfer my practice into this other space but it was completely different, cause they have no concept of the border. What happened is not their cultural history. Their concept of it doesn’t exist. It’s two different worlds. That’s when I started looking into this Celtic mythology and C.S. Lewis’ creative writing. This is the way I found to play with it and think about the scope, the scale and the history of borders. It’s a very short time if we think about it, one hundred years of partition.
IS: How are politics moulding young people’s identity and culture along the Irish-UK border?
KN: I don’t know if they are moulding their identity. I mean, yes. Aren’t we all? Politics is in everything. For example, Kilbroney School is the first integrated primary school in the north, where both Protestants and Catholics kids go, while in Pettigo there’s a cross-border youth group, a cross-border theatre group, and many others ‘cross-border’ initiatives, which is great but on the other hand, there’s stuff like the education system that segregates young people. How is the history about Ireland being taught and the history of partition? How is that taught to fifteen-years old in the Republic and in Northern Ireland?
IS: 2022 will mark the centenary of partition. Do you think Brexit has aggravated the physical and psychological impact of partition on young people of the Irish border? If so, how?
KN: Pettigo is a tiny little village: there’re only three main streets. I think quite a few people liked the presence of international media when Brexit happened. Because the border has been invisible for twenty years, they don’t consider the place they inhabit as a border space in their daily life, until something is actually happening. One of the women I spoke to, who was working at Pettigo’s petrol station, said how much Brexit was having an effect on the day to day life and economy. Because of Brexit, the pound went down so nobody wanted to go to her petrol station, on the Irish side of the border. I don’t know if Brexit had any real effect, except for fear and also for businesses. Yes, fear and anger about not having control and being unsure about what’s going to happen.
IS: How does your audio/visual project Lacuna relate to or intersect with your wider work on in-betweenness and places in flux? What are your future projects?
KN: I think every artist’s work is built on what has happened before, although one might not realise it when doing it. Lacuna was very much based on me travelling so much between the north and the south of Ireland. When working on Neither, I was connecting with young women and I was very interested in exploring this idea of space in flux where you don’t know the future of your space but you still have a very strong attachment to the place you’re in. For the future, I’d like to work more with video, as I started doing recently. Indeed, it felt weird to work with still images on a space in flux such as the border, two-thirds of which is water. This is the final year of Lacuna and hopefully, I’ll put it in a book at the end of 2022. A large exhibition will come along as well.
Kate Nolan is an Irish visual artist based in Dublin, Ireland, focused on extended photographic stories that examine the nature of identity.
Drawn to “in-between” places, she is intrigued by the effects of shifting histories of areas in flux. Nolan collaborates with local communities over extended periods to give voice to these changes.
Her latest project LACUNA, is a multi-disciplinary project considering the contemporary experience, physical and psychological impact of the partition on the children of the borderlands. LACUNA’s first solo show was in the Gallery of Photography, Dublin, Ireland in September – October 2017 and is currently touring in Ireland.
Her work is held in public and private collections in Japan, USA, France, Portugal, Mexico, UK and Ireland.