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Mediated Women in Post/Conflict Northern Ireland

The following is a brief and neat version of the paper I gave at BAFTSS 2015 and was privileged to test-run with the general public at Newcastle City Library, both in April 2015.

This paper presents a brief comparative analysis of two case studies I initially dealt with in different chapters of my PhD thesis, and then monograph. Sandra Johnston’s 1994 performance installation To Kill An Impulse is a response to silenced grieving and memories of traumatic experiences, while in contrast, Allan Hughes’s double-channel audio/video installation The Listening Station II: Counting Backwards from 2008-9 features a technologized automated female voice. The works show how lived experiences are in tension with official histories and authoritative systems of remembering and forgetting. To help demonstrate this, I tease out some ideas of ‘post’ or the state of ‘going beyond’ during the paper, the aim of which is to begin to demonstrate the value of the arts in Northern Ireland in finding creative means for communicating what we are led to believe ought not to be communicated.


The Northern Ireland conflict, known colloquially as the ‘Troubles’ began as a class issue. The violence that led to the official outbreak of conflict in 1969 stemmed from civil rights marches beginning the previous summer and the British government’s response to them. Already this is a conflict involving the denial of rights, and the denial of voicing demand for those rights. Gender imbalance pervades every aspect of the conflict, and I would say (partly from lived experience and partly from research) that this is mirrored in the region’s politics, society and culture more broadly. In the case of someone like the firebrand MP Bernadette Devlin McAliskey who was right at the heart of the initial upheaval, while she did rise above the parapet and had her voice heard, she quickly became a marginal figure and a spectral, fading memory of this history.

The two case studies, which involve more marginalized modes of cultural production in performance and video installation, confront the perceived roles of women during and post-conflict, specifically raising issues around the denial and the appropriation of the female voice, respectively.

In discussing the anti-terrorism public information films produced in the 1990s by the Northern Ireland Office, Martin McLoone points out ‘that children and women perform the same essentially sentimental roles as the innocent victims of male violence.’ Although relegated to passive roles in representations of the conflict, statistics confirm that an overwhelming majority of the 'official' 3700 or so Troubles dead were male, yet women were killed in what are regarded as the most horrific events.
Many women were of course combatants in a range of ways, but the death tolls reflect the apparent repression of the spectrum of women’s conflict experiences, particularly when in tension with normative societal ideals. Valerie Morgan and Grace Fraser state:
‘The reality of women’s experience within both the Catholic and Protestant religious traditions, and in both the North and South jurisdictions, has been in the main one of marginalisation and exclusion from power: but this reality has been confounded by idealised models of women which have had significant influence on popular […] thinking about politics and religion.’
Catholic women are often faced with unattainable standards of the noble ‘Mother Ireland’ personification of nationalist Ireland combined with the meek and pure Virgin Mary figure promoted by the faith. Protestantism does not place as much emphasis on this iconography but its women in the Northern Irish context can be subjected to similar degrees of domestication, invisibility and subservience with decisions made about their bodies by men. After decades of social upheaval and civil rights protests, little seems to have changed among many working class communities, and certainly women particularly lack autonomy over their bodies to this day in Northern Ireland - the continued criminalization of abortion is a case in point. I want to develop ideas around the silencing of memory as part of these measures of control with relation to the bodily communication afforded by performance art.

Resisting silence: performative communication

In her scholarly writing, performance artist Sandra Johnston explains that ‘contemporary art perspectives of performativity encompass a hybridization of several artistic approaches: relational, dialogical and participatory.’ she identifies a problem with this in that these forms ‘often exclude or reduce the value of the body as an expressive medium outside of verbal language.’ She continues:
‘Performance art continues to regenerate itself predominantly as a body-based, non-verbal art form, dependant on its ability to create memorable embodied images […]. […] The kinds of silences developed in performance art are perhaps relevant as a counterpoint to […] dialogical explorations, the space in effect, for the rituals of communication to be reconfigured and contemplated separately from the dominance of speech.’
Johnston argues for bodies and images to be brought into dialogue with one another in such a way that affective connections will be produced, hopefully resulting in cathartic release – although she is aware of how utopian that may seem and does grapple with that in her book. For now, it is interesting to take these developments in Johnston’s critical engagement with her own practice, and look back 20 years to one of her earliest performative installations, To Kill An Impulse.

The work was installed in Berlin in 1994 some months before the paramilitary ceasefires that year. It consisted of projected slides of stills from media footage of political funerals opposed against another set of slides rendered from short videos of Johnston’s performative response to the murder of Margaret Wright, a woman from a protestant community targeted by loyalists who mistook her to be Catholic. Both sets of slides were projected onto either side of a large dusty pane of glass Johnston found in the gallery’s back spaces. This was placed in the middle of the exhibition space with the slide projectors visible to either side, and caused the images to merge with the added texture of the hand prints and scuffs present on the glass. It gave the installation a quality akin to expanded cinema with the apparatus visible as sculptural elements in space and the spectators having to pass through the projector beams, thus becoming participants and performative bodies in the work.

In some images when the groups of mourners realize they’re being recorded, they shield the woman from view – usually men with their bodies or umbrellas. The women’s emotional reactions are hidden and repressed. The stillness affords access to the natural performance of a private yet publicly displayed grief, which is strengthened when visually infused with stills of Johnston’s performance of her own different kind of trauma which is intrinsically linked to these mourners through pain she herself experienced due to male sectarian violence.

In contrast to this, the ‘post’ conflict female still linked with externally imposed remembering and forgetting. Particularly since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement women have increasingly been portrayed as peacekeepers and mediators as well as victims and the other pushed to the periphery. This also moves from the reclaiming of the body as both the site and vehicle for communication with various kinds of denial of the voice to consider the disembodied recorded and mediated/mediatized voice. This is explored in Allan Hughes’s double channel audiovisual installation The Listening Station II, (Counting Backwards). As the title implies, this work was the continuation of a single-channel video titled The Listening Station in which Hughes made covertly styled recordings of a British Army surveillance vantage point on Black Mountain overlooking Belfast City while in the process of post-conflict decommissioning. As the title also suggests, listening and being heard are just as prominent in surveillance as seeing and being seen. The rhythmic camerawork in part 1 is timed to a countdown spoken by an automated female voice: zero zero five two, zero zero four two, zero zero three two, etc. The second version engages with the notion of psychic history connected to the recent past, a sense that is achieved by adding a corresponding film to the existing installation.

Subtitled 'counting backwards', the extended version is screened on two monitors pointed at 90 degree angles to one another. As you can see in the installation view, only one screen can be viewed at any time, however the sound you hear comes from the monitor you can’t see (which is in blackness) while the visible image is silent. These synchronized audiovisual elements swap at intervals, again encouraging performative acts of viewing and listening. While the first plays images of the listening station, the countdown plays from the other monitor. When they swap the picture shows a series of multi-angled close-ups of a man wearing headphones while a reassuring soft-toned female voice relays instructions and mental images from the other speakers. We can presume we are privy to what this man is hearing, complicating the public and private, but equally the instructions might be directed at anyone in the public space while he is shielded. He is a receiver, but given how he is always looking offscreen and apparently listening to something to which the spectator has no access, we don’t know what information he may or may not be receiving. The spectator does receive the voice though.

A quick note on voice recording – Liz Greene in her work on the objectifying ‘sonic regime of sound design’ notes the differences between recording male and female voices (in more commercial endeavours). It is interesting to point out that women (untrained voices) must be recorded in more intimate ways due to a lack of reverberation in space, making the recordings seem more intimate. This is interesting to apply to the Listening Station. The voice gives instructions on how to remember, actively controlling the listener’s thinking. This alone has strong resonances of the patriarchal systems filtering down such messages in post-agreement society (many members of the assembly are also former combatants of the conflict so the reasons for encouraging us to forget and move on are many).

In a mild/neutral Northern Irish accent the spectral disembodied voice tells the listener to view past events through the current psychology of the present. She gives instructions on how to examine personal memories and draws upon the collective modern consciousness by urging the unspecified listener to act as a neutral observer who views the past as if watching it on TV. This level of mediatization and mediatized language is prevalent in work about NI since the early 1990s across all art forms. She tells you to listen, to let everything become clear and to become orientated to the memory environment. She asks, where are you? What has happened? These questions raise a tension between difficult memories that cannot be evoked, and those which should not in case they are disruptive to the peace process and official narratives. The technologized voice which seemingly encourages a subjective response is a mask for something else; it presents a false sense of security.
The appropriation of the normally stifled female voice gives impression of moving forward during peacetime and control being imposed for the greater good, but the voice isn’t real, isn’t connected to a body. This voice is purely a sign signifying the continuing observation, listening, information gathering and control by the state that has never changed. The voice itself is being controlled. It has no autonomy, no substance. It is essentially a ventriloquist’s dummy (interesting in the light of the posthuman). In his introduction to The Location of Culture Homi Bhabha discusses the notion of post as beyond. The writer and cultural commenter Edna Longley has stated that NI is only post-conflict in that it’s already being archived – its post-millennial archivization is marking it as being after the fact, and just like the voice in Hughes’s installation, this is a fallacy because the fundamental issues which led to the outbreak of conflict have never been resolved, unless we count the tokenism rife in employment equal opportunities.

To borrow from scholarship on the disembodied synthesized voice in contemporary music, Joseph Auner particularly when quoting Susana Loza touches on issues relevant to the ventriloquial voice in The Listening Station. Combined with the image of the man listening (or not) through technology to a posthuman voice, embodies Auner’s point that using this kind of voice charts the convulsions at the boundaries of (in this case) gender, the past, present and future, time and memory, and the human. Turning to Loza’s points, the voice’s demands and questions do traverse the space between desire (for memory? For moving on?) and dread (of memory/being stilled in time unable to move on). The voice does destabilize and reconfigure these dualistic limits of liberal humanist subjectivity. On the surface the voice is the voice of reason but upon interrogation has no substance, whereas the voiceless subjects in Johnston’s work present an alternative to the denial of the voice. Together these works in different ways encourage active participation and critical thinking from the spectator/listener as part of the communications process. This activation, or at least the possibility of it, is important in that the visual arts and more experimental film practices have been the only platforms on which the incommunicable has been communicated, by various means, in many conflict situations, which is why it is perhaps unsurprising that funding to the arts, particularly to outreach organizations, has been so significantly cut. Not only is this important for victims and survivors, but also for the legacy left to postmemory generations.

Auner, Joseph. '"Sing It for Me": Posthuman Ventriloquism in Recent Popular Music', Journal of the Royal Musical Association 128.1 (2003), 98–122.
Bhabha, Homi K. The Location of Culture (London & New York: Routledge, 1994).
Greene, Liz. 'Speaking, Singing, Screaming: Controlling the Female Voice in American Cinema', The Soundtrack 2.1 (2009), 63–76.
Johnston, Sandra. Beyond Reasonable Doubt (Zurich; Berlin: LIT, 2014).
McLoone, Martin. ‘The Commitments’, Fortnight 321 (1993), 34–6.
Morgan, Valerie, and Grace Fraser. ‘Women and the Northern Ireland Conflict: Experiences and Responses’, in Seamus Dunn, ed., Facets of the Conflict in Northern Ireland (Basingstoke; New York: Macmillan; St Martin’s Press, 1995), 81–96.


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