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Catalogue Text – ‘Tolka Nights: Deep-Mapping and Public Art as Interface’, Create National development agency for collaborative arts, October 2015

October 1, 2015

Deep maps are finely detailed, multimedia depictions of a place and the people, buildings, objects, flora, and fauna that exist within it and which are inseparable from the activities of everyday life. These depictions may encompass the beliefs, desires, hopes, and fears of residents and help show what ties one place to another.[i]

Speaking at the Tolka Nights symposium in the College of Amenity and Horticulture, Director of the National Botanic Gardens Matthew Jebb ruminated on the Tolka as a “moody” river and a “leaky barrier”. The river, he explained, provides the Botanic Gardens with its northern boundary-marker – a geographical feature which makes the urban site feel intrinsically “rural”. Later in the symposium, Czech artist Klara Hobza discussed her momentous thirty-year project ‘Diving through Europe’, which acknowledges Europe’s rivers as conduits of diverse cultural histories. As a public art commission, Tolka Nights engaged intently with the River Tolka in these ways; both physically as a geographical boundary or threshold, and conceptually, as site of communal histories – something French historian Pierre Nora describes as ‘Lieux de Mémoire’: particular sites or spaces where ‘memory crystalises and secretes itself in visual form’ through multiple material and spatial means[ii].

Tolka Nights was commissioned through a Per Cent for Art scheme arising from the creation of flood defence systems along the River Tolka – Dublin’s second largest river. Using the river as a ‘central connector’, Tolka Nights took place over three consecutive evenings across distinct locations in the Tolka region, marking the culmination of multifarious projects undertaken by six artists: Matt Green, Sven Anderson, John D’Arcy, Jennie Guy, Conan McIvor and Stuart Sloan. Soundscapes, moving image works, performance and dialogue converged, inviting audiences to engage with the river’s multi-layered histories, ecosystems and communities.

With an expansive terrain traversing Meath, Fingal and Dublin City local authority areas, it became necessary for the artists to find ways of zoning-in on particular sites. At micro-level, the principles of psychogeography underpinned many of the artists’ inquiries. Defined as a ‘challenging tool for a new, and potentially more radical, reflection, transformation and redefinition of modern urban experience’, psychogeography has gained immense traction since the term was first devised by Guy Debord in the mid ‘50’s, and has evolved to loosely designate all manner of artistic and narrative strategies, conscious or unconscious spatial practices and subversive political acts[iii]. Concurring with twentieth century scholarly developments surrounding the Spatial Turn, artistic responses to ‘place’ have increasingly been informed by research methods appropriated from ethnography and cultural geography[iv]. From field recordings and archival research, to speculative journeys and mapping, Tolka Nights evidenced a range of psychogeographic methods for engaging purposefully with the immediate physical landscape, its ecology, flora, fauna, architecture, place names and communities.

For example, both Matt Green and Stuart Sloan embarked on speculative walks through the Tolka’s riverbank regions, accompanied by local people, whose conversations provided the films’ voice-overs and narrative content. Green’s series of four short films documents his Tolka expeditions with local wildlife enthusiasts to track elusive river animals: kingfishers, trout, otters and bats. Each opening scene is dominated by audible footsteps through the undergrowth. Working in tandem with the films’ visual elements, audio was generated through copious field recordings to intensify the river experience. Across each film, conversations merge with personal, descriptive and anecdotal accounts of the river, embodying the solace people frequently find in nature. Similarly, Sloan’s In Troubled Waters employs documentary film techniques to explore symbiotic relationships between humans and the Tolka. A narrator reflects on modern-day agricultural and industrial pollution which severely impacts on the river’s wildlife. Archival TV footage conveys recent floods (attributable to climate change and depleting floodplains) which resulted in the evacuation of nearby homes. Sloan’s film concludes with reverie, proposing harmonious use of the river, utilised in summer by families for leisure pursuits and during winter by seabirds flocking to calmer waters.

Also adopting a psychogeographic vantage-point, Jennie Guy researched the plant species and habitats of the Tolka region. The artist’s findings were made visible at the Tolka Quiz, where she posed a series of questions relating to the medicinal properties of native Irish river flora. In addition, Guy sourced and prepared a selection of Tolka-inspired food and drinks, including smoked trout, plum chutney, blackberry jam and locally-baked soda bread, as well as nettle tea, berry cocktail and elderflower cordial, which further rooted the project in the immediate terrain.

 

Deep Mapping: “Where traditional maps serve as statements, deep maps serve as conversations[v]

Another strand of psychogeographic research focuses on the ‘excavation of history’ and its effects on the ongoing ‘relationship between the territory an individual inhabits’[vi]. Across each of strand of Tolka Nights, the knowledge amassed by the artists on the region’s cultural, ecological, military and industrial histories was widely evident. Preserved across an array of canonical Irish literature, mythology, folklore and iconography, these region-specific micro-histories appear dormant yet are, in fact, omnipresent. For example, the Tolka region’s volatile flood history is memorialised in statues of the Virgin Mary, which feature ubiquitously in shrines along the riverbanks, aimed at protecting local residents from future flooding. Taking its title from a nineteenth-century poem of the same name, Conan McIvor’s film Our Lady of the Tolka pans the river’s mythologies and histories, drawing on the ‘trance film’ tradition of 1940s avant garde cinema to depict a dreamlike scenario – part flashback, part haunting – through a series of monochromatic vignettes. Distorted, post-industrial soundscapes add dramatic tension as a female apparition dressed in white emerges from the river. Bearing witness to destructive forces from the Middle Ages, the woman channels Viking invasions and the Battle of Clontarf, summoning storms and floods in one final ritualistic act, aimed at restoring the river.

In contrast, Before the Flood (2015) by Sven Anderson and Jennie Guy explores a fictional historical scenario, perceived as predating Tolka Valley Park’s twenty-first century status as an integrated biodiversity wetland. The film is narrated from the perspective of a young planner, appointed Temporary Flood Commissioner following catastrophic flooding in the Tolka region. Crisp black and white footage pans a suburban Modernist housing estate as the planner recounts four potential solutions: entombing the river in concrete; propagating plants in gridded formations; housing ‘reconstructed plants’ in landscaped shopping centres; and constructing boardwalks to traverse the floodplains. The monologue was discerningly assembled from research probing urban planning, neo-futuristic architecture and shopping-mall design, and narrated by Irish architect and environmentalist Duncan Stewart, who lends plausibility to these impossible events.

With a twenty-first century influx of technologically-generated information, deep-mapping has emerged as an important conceptual device for managing, analysing and visualising spatial data.  Deep maps have the ability to simultaneously present a range of inter-connected ecological, historical, mythical, visual, archaeological, scientific, cultural, linguistic, and intuitive elements, which may exist within the physical landscape. Demonstrating one of the most direct engagements with the material concepts of deep-mapping, John D’Arcy worked with local residents and singers to develop the Tolka Chorus – a lyrical composition of found texts and improvised vocals which “recreates the sounds of the river, its communities and its localities”. On screen, a map of the river Tolka appeared luminous against a monochrome background. Mimicking a G.P.S satellite navigation interface, an orbicular ‘O’ (which visibly channels the mouth) was used as a place-marker to track a journey down-stream. Whispered voices and snippets of conversation were layered in trickles and torrents with each destination, mirroring the twists and turns of the river. Channeling the sites where memory and historical continuity persist, the score builds to a sea shanty-inspired crescendo as the river enters Dublin Bay between East Wall and Clontarf.

 

How we Gather: Public Arts as Interface

In the contemporary digital age, an ‘interface’ is widely understood as an item of computer equipment or software which enables information to be communicated between devices and programs, frequently involving the user. As a noun, ‘interface’ also denotes the point of convergence between disparate subjects, elements or systems. It can be visualised not only as a boundary or threshold, but as a ‘meeting place’ where distinct entities have the potential to merge. This definition extends further in verb form, to denote human interaction with other people, often through forms of affective communication such as talking, listening and sharing. Resonating across each of these definitions, Tolka Nights facilitated a range of interdisciplinary and discursive public exchanges which were fortified through technological and digital means, to engage audiences in multidimensional, virtual and interactive experiences. Common cultural forms of public gathering were modified and staged by the artists as platforms to illustrate the extent of their investments in the river Tolka’s sites and communities.

With the river Tolka running nearby, the family-run Grasshopper Inn, Clonee, provided an ideal setting for a quintessential opening event: the Tolka Quiz. Having appropriated the pub’s in-house media system, the artists ingeniously augmented the traditional pub quiz format with interactive, multimedia elements including film footage, audio clips and ‘ambient projections’. Many of the community groups attending the quiz had worked with the artists at different stages; however this was the first time members of these groups – BirdWatch Ireland, Irish Wildlife Trust, Anglers Association, Mulhuddart Walkers Group and Coolmine Musical Society – convened in one place. There is something rather heart-warming about public displays of specialist knowledge, and such fanaticism was abundantly valued within the Tolka Quiz, where this unifying gesture within the community setting served to  simultaneously broaden interpretations of ‘what artists do’.

The second Tolka Nights event – an outdoor screening of the artists’ films – prompted reflection on the ‘social temporalities of cinema-going’, with a communal outdoor viewing experience[vii].  Tolka Valley Park – a suburban green-zone near a major road and retail centre – provided a secluded setting for the event, which acknowledged the proximity of encroaching urbanisation. Installed in an amphitheatre-like hollow near the riverbanks of the Tolka, the temporary cinema screen shimmered against a dusky magenta sky. Vibrant light installations cast kaleidoscopic shadows on surrounding trees, conjuring an ‘atmospheric cinema’ which (unlike indoor cinema) offered infinite awareness of space, the evening skyline and exposure to the elements. Though moderately hampered by wet weather, the sounds of raindrops hitting the viewing gazebo’s canopy merged with cascading river sounds to form a fittingly immersive watery soundscape. The screenings included elements of documentary film, computer-generated graphics and avant garde cinema, as well as literary devices such as first-person narrative, which offered the audience access to the plot, character and inner world of the films’ narrators.  One of the film screenings was bookended by percussive soundscapes using samples of ethnic music, which alluded to global applications of the film’s themes, while serving to further expand established parameters of cinematic reception.

The Tolka Symposium at the Botanic Gardens provided an opportunity to hear from a range of professionals working on river-themed projects, elucidating a range of artistic, ecological, architectural and ethnographic perspectives. Rivers as sites of public connectivity, human endeavour and cultural history featured as prominent themes.  The philosophical currency of the ‘temporary’ in public art was intelligently addressed, with an emphasis on ideas, content and analytical processes[viii].  As a form of public gathering and a discursive platform, the symposium format worked exceptionally well within the broader context of the Tolka Nights programme, galvanising these transient public moments with attentive and enduring criticality.

Moving outdoors for the closing event, audience members were given handheld radio-receivers and ushered into the grounds of the Botanic Gardens, where a series of short-range FM radio broadcasts had been dispersed. These transmissions were derived from other aspects of the project, including layers of the films’ soundtracks, field recordings of the river, animal sounds and audio documentation of the Tolka Quiz. Colourful spot-lighting near the riverbank created a festival feel. Periods of static fuzz governed the direction of people’s footsteps, until snippets of conversations, voices and music came into frequency range, feeling like a treasure hunt for close-listeners. Like the two other Tolka Nights events, this sonic intervention hinged on the collective artists’ impressive technological proficiencies. The project was activated ultimately by participation from the audience, who – in a generous parting gesture – were invited to wander, and to thereafter forge their own interactions with the river.

 

 

Joanne Laws is an arts writer based in Leitrim. She has previously written for publications such as: Art Monthly (UK), Art Papers (US), Cabinet (US) and Frieze (UK).

 

 

 [i] David J. Bodenhamer, John Corrigan, and Trevor M. Harris (eds.) Deep Maps and Spatial Narratives (Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2015)

[ii] Pierre Nora ‘Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire in Representations, University of California Press, No. 26, Special Issue: Memory and Counter-Memory, Spring 1989, p.p. 7-24.

[iii] Petr Chalupský ‘London of the Mind – The Narrative of Psychogeographic Antiquarianism in Selected London Novels of Peter Ackroyd’, English Language and Literature Studies, Vol. 4, No. 1, 2014.

[iv] See: Beat Kümin and Cornelie Usborne ‘At Home and in the Workplace: A Historical Introduction to the Spatial Turn’, in History & Theory, Vol. 52, October 2013, pp. 305 – 318.

[v] David J. Bodenhamer, John Corrigan, and Trevor M. Harris (eds.) Deep Maps and Spatial Narratives (Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2015)

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Maeve Connolly ‘Temporality, Sociality, Publicness: Cinema as Art Project’, Afterall, Issue 29, Spring 2012, pp.4—15

[viii] See Herriet F. Senie and Sally Webster (eds.) Critical Issues in Public Art: Content, Context, and Controversy (New York: HarperCollins, 1993) p.297.

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