Roy Wallace reflects on being part of and his reaction to Filip Markiewicz’s exhibition Celebration Factory… (pictures by NN and Joe Brown)
I walked into the NN Contemporary Gallery not really knowing what to expect from Filip’s exhibition and found myself confronted with a beautiful wide screen video projection which Filip had produced as a visiting artist. If you want to know more about Filip and the exhibition details, here is the link: http://www.nncontemporaryart.org/exhibitions/filip-markiewicz/
Instead, I am going to write about my experience as both a participant and consumer of the exhibition.
I was at my University office late one Friday afternoon when I received a call from Catherine Hemelryk from NN Contemporary who was curating the exhibition. She was with Filip and asked if they could meet with me as a potential contributor to the video project Filip was producing. I am usually very sceptical of such approaches but as I was just finishing up for the day and planning to go into town anyway, I decided to call in to meet with them.
It was a cold April afternoon and I was wrapped up in my favourite scarf when I sat down in Catherine’s office to get more information. Filip outlined his plans for the project and I was intrigued, and as the conversation gathered momentum I realised that we had a lot in common regarding the type of work we both produce Filip was exploring Northampton from an outsider point of view, which is like my own situation as I am not originally from the town. We discussed my prior experiences of living in N Ireland and the positive nature of the Punk scenes across Europe through which we have shared knowledge and common influences informing our work.
I introduced Filip to some of the people and students I was aware of in Northampton who are currently engaged in the local music scene which I believe has real potential to enhance the future for community’s in Northamptonshire. One of the projects I am engaged in TRANSITION explores how independent and academic research can impact on the local community, through exhibition, screenings, live performance and spoken word etc. We discussed views on the local scene and Filip asked if I would participate in the recording for his project.
I explained that I felt uncomfortable discussing my personal views on camera while understanding that Filip was also exploring how the community in Northampton as feeling about the Brexit vote, politics and Europe and the rise of conservativism/right wing philosophies across all the borders. He implicitly confronted me to consider whether I was part of the community in Northampton and up to that point, I had not regarded myself as such. I felt an outsider very much in transience through other peoples fixed lives, window shopping on the potential that they possessed to better their lives and create a future for their children, like many other newcomers to the town.
I agreed to talk openly and honestly about areas of my life experiences in Belfast and Northern Ireland that I have suppressed, mainly because I learned that over time, people did not really understand what we as a whole community lived through nor they did not want to hear narratives which confront their own ingrained perceptions which place them into the uncomfortable tension that I was also confronted with by Filip. So for the first time, I tried to reflect on the themes of Filip’s exhibition, relate them to my own and weave together some connecting narrative which hopefully signposts visitors to further research on areas that I personally publicly reflect on video.
When I watched the projection in the exhibition space for the first time with some friends, my heart sank as I realised I had completely exposed some of my inner thoughts to a viewing public and again felt extremely uncomfortable with this ‘mirror’ that Filip had created, although I enjoyed the other contributors particularly from the local Black Metal band Denigrata.
However, the moment of clarity in the work for me is the male voice choir acoustically singing a Robbie Williams song at the local church which would normally hit every single one of my negative buttons in one go. The way that Filip captured what was presumably a normal weekly activity by the choir was emotionally beautiful and filled with hope. I also listened to conversations by some of our students about their views on the music scene and the positivity that exists in Northampton to build on the work that many people have worked towards for years was again nothing but hopeful. The rest of the exhibition was thought provoking, challenging and playful which I really enjoyed.
When the exhibition opened and colleagues had been to view the exhibition one of them commented that I had brought a certain gravitas to the project by reciting one of the lyrics I wrote about a real event in Belfast back in early 1990’s in a song called Sectarian Life. Again I felt I had unnecessarily introduced politics to an otherwise beautiful work and was saddened.
Since then, Manchester and London have now happened which unfortunately has brought similar experiences that many people in Northern Ireland have lived through 1970’s to present day. Without attempting to compare pain, suffering or grief, fundamentally as a society and within communities across Europe we all know that these types of acts of indiscriminate violence are unacceptable and against human principles of civilised behaviour. Yet we silently allow governments, religions, paramilitary factions and corporations to arm and control these very people who brutalise, kill, torture and imprison across the globe. Overthrowing any form of democracy with narrow fundamentalist perspectives drawn from dubious historical accounts of religious and nationalist superiority gained from numerous wars and imperialist endeavours.
I recently watched as Jeremy Corbyn and Diane Abbott squirm in the media spotlight they were courting, about their previous relationship/thoughts with the IRA which reflects common views held by the left across Europe regarding the acceptable point at which such acts of barbarity should be tolerated. Similar criticism could be directed at the politicians who implicitly or explicitly support the Loyalist paramilitaries during the ‘Troubles’ and I was glad I had participated in Filip’s project as I know I need to confront my own silence and learn to speak about the recent political situation in N Ireland, as our collective perception of history is always in the making and lived experience brings with it certain context which political theories cannot.
Many people in Northamptonshire may be unaware that communities and potential voters in Northern Ireland and yes I use the term Northern Ireland to reflect the sense of cultural identity which now permeates the non-Irish nationalist communities who are unable to vote for the Labour party as the Labour Party refuses to organise and allow a range of non-sectarian voters to opt for an alternative to the dominant sectarian division.
Such a strategy has served various governments well in their quest for power and avoidance of real democracy and unfortunately this has now been evidenced in the June 2017 election resulting in the Tory/DUP pact which will form the next UK government. Filip’s exhibition set out to explore how communities in the UK have become so anti-European, anti-immigrant and more right-wing in their thinking. When you are confronted with any real choice regarding your preferred political representative you only really have two choices. Defer your responsibility to vote for someone you may not particularly want to see in government but who has been ‘placed’ by the political system or somehow take responsibility yourself and cooperate with other likeminded people to bring about positive change.
It could be argued that we are all now simply debt slaves to the corporate agenda facilitated by governments across Europe and the rise of right wing politics suits the continuation of this agenda. I found such themes reflected in Filip’s artworks which resonate through the exhibition asking us to question our political position, silence and lack of tolerance of others.
The Celebration Factory exhibition made me feel really uncomfortable as a participant but filled me with hope as a viewer and I have grown because of this experience. The exhibition pierced my routine of avoidance and sense of detachment from politics. Slowly I am finding a voice again to reflect and articulate the experience of Northern Ireland within an outsider context. I hope to produce more artworks in future which explore these issues and engage in local changemaker initiatives working with individuals and groups to help address social problems affecting the Northampton community with a sense of shared responsibility rather than ignoring the problems.
I’m thankful that the philosophy of punk, apparent in Filip’s artistic exhibition, still offers potential for us all to think outside the box, bringing potential to remain hopeful, caring and creative in our approach to the bigger political challenges brought about by division and intolerance.
Filip’s exhibition helped me remember a fundamental principle of the current political system in the UK that, no matter who you vote for, government always wins… there may be consequences of opposing authority but in the end, there is no authority but yourself, whether you chose to believe or not believe in deities outside of your own sovereign being…..
You can read more about this history in Northern Ireland through Roy’s new publication ‘Goodbye Ballyhightown’ and view a range of his documentary works including ‘Big Time’ the history of punk in N Ireland 1997-1982 at: www.punkscholars.net