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Exhibition of Autodecay at Golden Thread Gallery – 2006

The ‘Troubles’ hang like a spectre of surreality over North Belfast. You know you are going somewhere different when the taxi driver phones in your name to the rank just to be safe when they pick you up from Belfast Central Station.

The Crumlin Road is home of the infamous prison, closed since the Good Friday Agreement and which may soon be a museum, and as you leave the city behind, you feel you are heading into wastelands of industrial abandonment.

This was the ‘murder mile’ of the 1970s and has been a hotbed of the expression of sectarian hatred between the communities it physically divides. But the seeds of change are in place here and important steps are being made to bridge the pervasive divide.

The Golden Thread Gallery is a small gallery on the interface of the Ardoyne and Shankill communities and is on the frontline. Exhibitions of contemporary art in the gallery and associated outreach projects are trying to bring the two communities together that gated housing blocks and peace barricades keep apart.

The Gallery is located in the Brookfield Mill is on the right side of the Crumlin Road. It is one of the old mills that were taken over by the Flax International Trust charity set up in the 1970s to provide business opportunities and employment in this one of the most deprived areas of Northern Ireland.

The Trust set up a business school and a business enterprise park in the Brookfield Mill and it funds a housing project and runs meals on wheels to both communities. There is also an Arts Complex with the Golden Thread Gallery, a theatre, dance studios, and artists’ studios.

The bar owned by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the ground of the mill seems an anomaly and as yet it only really attracts a clientele that will follow the fortunes of the green and white hoops of Celtic Football Club.

The Gallery receives financial support from the Flax Trust, the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and Belfast City Council.

“It was started by an artist who was looking for a studio space, and the Trust said she could have the space if she wouldn’t mind running a few exhibitions. She thought it was a good idea to have a gallery space up here,” says Peter Richards, Director of the Gallery and an artist of repute in his own right. As well as putting on shows of high profile artists the gallery also looks for material that is relevant to its location.

“We try to marry up contemporary art practice with issues that are pertinent to our location. It encourages local residents to have a sense of inclusion,” says Peter.

A prime example of this was the recent showing of Dublin artist Shane Cullen’s acclaimed work “The Agreement” in the gallery. You would be hard pushed to find a more relevant location for the work, which focuses on the Good Friday Agreement.

“To bring it here I think gave it more kudos. It was one of the most significant events in our recent history. Here is smack bang in the middle of one of the most troubled parts of Belfast,” says Peter.

“A huge amount of people came in to see the exhibition. It addressed an issue so key to development of the peace process. It sums up a lot of things we have been trying to do.”

“We try to create a friendly neutral environment. It is a safe space to discuss issues that can be quite fraught. We raise the profile of the debate of the issues around the art. But we don’t interfere with the quality of the exhibition,” adds Peter.

Not all of the art shown is political and quality is key according to Peter Richards.

The Brookfield Mill is not in the best spot for the local arts scene aficionados, but they are not the only visitors Peter wants to attract to the gallery. The remote location of the gallery make it different from other Belfast city galleries and anyone who comes in is made feel at home with a cup of tea. This encourages people to revisit.

“There has been a steady increase in the number of local residents who regularly attend the gallery. This has been with limited financial resources. Growth in attendance has been word of mouth in the locality. We also try and run outreach activities alongside the exhibitions that actively encourage community participation.”

Openings are held on Saturday afternoons rather than in the evenings so visitors to the gallery can bring their kids around and as it can be a threatening area at night.

The gallery has had to try to overcome the stigma in the loyalist community that is associated with being on the Catholic side of the interface.

“Located on one side of the road you are labelled as being on one side rather than being on both sides. There was no positive discrimination but we spent a lot of time talking to community organizations across the road. By having organised visits from that community we are beginning to redress the balance.”

The gallery works a lot with schools and working with kids is prioritized, especially to try and get over the ‘white cube’ stigma attached to gallery spaces. It is a good way to promote the gallery

“A schoolteacher brings over a class of kids. The message spreads by word of mouth to the parents, ” says Peter.

The Brookfield Mill Complex has been the target of violent attacks in the past, particularly in July, but they have been on the wane in recent years.

“By employing people from both communities it helps diffuse potential problems or flashpoints,” says Peter.

The Art Gallery has had some famous visitors in the past. Our own President Mary McAleese (from just around the corner and a former trustee of the Flax International Trust), Bill Clinton, General DeChastelaine, Chris Patten and Mo Mowlam have all been here. From the business world, Barclay Knapp, Chief Executive of NTL, was a recent visitor.

“We get visitors from the major political parties on a regular basis,” says Peter.

If you go out the back entrance of the Brookfield Mill, then you are in the Catholic Ardoyne. On the left side of the Crumlin road is the Loyalist Shankill area. The physical proximity of the two divided communities is all too tangible. If you walk up the Tennent Street in the middle of the Shankill, just a few minutes walk from the gallery, a right turn and a ten minute walk will take you to the Ardoyne and a left turn and a ten minute walk to the Falls. The Protestant Shankill area is sandwiched between the Falls and the Ardoyne. The Holy Cross School and the Glenbryn Estate are also just minutes away from the Gallery. This is typical of North and West Belfast with little, sometimes isolated, pockets of communities dotted all around.

Murals adorn the end gables of the streets in both The Shankill and The Ardoyne and they have this in common, but the themes the murals depict are very different. The newer murals may reflect a change since the arrival of peace. In the Upper Shankill those that pay homage to the British Royal Family have taken over somewhat from the fading murals of hooded paramilitaries. Likewise in the Ardoyne those eulogizing mythical Celtic heroes and the feats of GAA sportsmen seem more prominent than more violent images. But the violent images although fading are a reminder of a not too distant past.

You might wonder what is the relevance of photographs of car wrecks taken in the Wicklow Mountains to North Belfast and why show them in the Golden Thread Gallery. My photographs of cars abandoned by joyriders are pertinent and relevant to the location of the gallery in that joyriding has become a serious problem in North Belfast over the past few years. It has been a problem for years in West Belfast, but more cars are now being dumped on the Crumlin Road and the surrounding area.

Some people, especially the family of victims of accidents caused by joyriders, object to the use of the word joyriding and have suggested that ‘death rider’, ‘death driver’ or ‘grief rider’ are more appropriate terms. But unfortunately they lack the instant recognition of the term joyrider, as everyone knows what a joyrider is.

Sean O’Connell, a doctor of Social History and the University of Ulster and author of “The Car in British Society”, has an interest in the history of joyriding and says.

“Joyriding is the term everyone understands. Unfortunately it has been the term that has been used for 80 years.”

Joyriding was a serious problem in the 1920s and 30s, but there was no offence and joyriders simply stated they were borrowing the car when apprehended by the police. They have in the past baited the police and sometimes even the paramilitaries who have handed out punishment beatings to offenders.

“Part of the aim is to get them involved in the chase,” says Sean.

The typical joyrider is a male in his mid teens from an inner city or suburban housing estate with high unemployment and who is in some way socially excluded from society. They may exclude themselves by leaving school. It is not known why they steal cars, but risk taking macho behaviour is definitely a characteristic of young males and peer pressure plays a role. Their girlfriends and younger kids will travel in the car as passengers and may egg them on to drive faster and more dangerously.

“Perhaps joyriding is a form of masculine protest among young men. Their lifestyle is about kudos and status. There is the excitement of stealing the car and the excitement of driving at high speed. They get status among their peers as being ‘bad lads’ or ‘a psycho’,” according to Sean O’Connell.

There is a progression in joyriding with most packing it in by their early 20s or going on to more serious crime. Joyriding is initiated when stolen cars are brought into the estates and abandoned. The younger kids will play in them, vandalise them and burn them.

“Kids will start the fire to get the Fire Brigade out. It provides entertainment for half an hour,” says Sean. The burning of stolen cars by joyriders is quite a recent phenomenon in Belfast.

Joyriding has not been too big a problem to date in the Shankill, which may be something to do with the fact that a lot of youths join the Orange Orders, but a recent development in Loyalist communities has been the dangerous driving by youths in ‘runabouts’. They purchase cheap ‘runabout’ cars available because of the prohibitive cost involved in recycling cars, which they don’t tax or insure. If they are caught, they avoid being charged with the offence of stealing the car.

For my exhibition there is a planned outreach schools project to design a road sign to discourage joyriding. Ruth Graham is Outreach Co-ordinator for the Project.

“It will hopefully get kids to think about the problem. To have fun and to see that creativity is more fun than destruction and can have its rewards.”

The schools already involved are from both Catholic and Protestant Communities and one school has attendants from both communities (The Hazelwood Integrated College).

There is a small prize for the winning entry, but the aim is to activate people into thinking about the problem and how to come up with solutions.

“A lot of kids are vulnerable to this kind of crime. A lot of them buy “run-around cars”. They pick them up for £50. They use them from getting from one area to another and then they will steal another,” says Ruth. Run-around cars are called company cars in Ireland.

“Ex-joyriders are to judge the competition for a road sign. They know what kinds of images and symbols that would have the most impact,” adds Ruth.

The plan is to get the community groups from both sides of the sectarian divide to decide where the signs should go in North Belfast and to get them to lobby the Department of the Environment to get the signs put up. One such community group is Families Bereaved Through Car Crime and they have been lobbying the local government for stricter sentences for car theft and associated crime.

There is no doubt that the economic improvements to the plight of those who live in North Belfast, which is one of the most impoverished areas in the whole of Northern Ireland, has raised their quality of life. But to effect change and to break down the barriers to communication between the communities there needs to be social and cultural integration as well. Social problems, such as joyriding, that span the cultural divide need to be addressed. Perhaps, as one of the political leaders in the North said recently, the arts can provide a cultural leadership and that it has the potential to really make a difference. Peter Richards at the Golden Thread Gallery certainly believes that to be so.

The Autodecay Exhibition runs from May 31 until July 5 at the Golden Thread Gallery in Belfast. The exhibition also features the projection of some poems by renowned poet Dennis O’Driscoll. After the exhibition the Gallery and the Brookfield Mill Business Complex shuts down for the marching season in July.

© Conor Caffrey 2007

Click here to see Gallery of Autodecay images


Autodecay – 2006

After returning to Ireland to live after living abroad for many years, I was immediately drawn to photographing the Wicklow Mountains and their natural beauty. It was while I was taking some landscapes in the area of the Sally Gap that I noticed the large number of abandoned car wrecks. Last winter I started taking a series of photographs of these car wrecks near Lough Bray, at the base of Kippure and along the Luggala Road that runs above Lough Tay (all within a couple of miles of each other). It is most likely they were burnt out and left there by joyriders or criminals who had used them in a crime.

As a photographer and a writer, the idea of using my writing to explain my photography is new to me. In general my photography has been used in the past to complement my writing and has enhanced the text of a particular story. But this series of images was taken to provide a visual message without text and it is a challenge to explain my feelings about them in words. The visual medium is one that generally I feel does not require explanation, as it is up to the viewer to take there own personal interpretation out of an image when they view it. As the originator, I am wary of providing only the author’s interpretation, which may be suggestive to a viewer of a particular interpretation that they may not have had of the work. This can have a positive or negative impact on how a viewer sees the work. I prefer the viewer to direct his or her own interpretation of the work. With this series of images when I have shown them, I have not offered my own personal interpretation of the series of images until the viewer has given me their view. That said there are important themes to this work that perhaps merit some words.

The act of photography in itself is not essentially a political act. It is the interpretation of an image that is political. Although this set of images can be interpreted as being pro-environmental, and they were taken to portray the negative neglect of the natural environment, they also can be interpreted from an aesthetic point of view. The rust of the cars, although it signifies decay, is also quite beautiful in colour and texture. The complementary colours of the rusting wreck and the surrounding landscape challenges the viewer into asking whether it is truly an ugly object, as there is also a type of beauty present. It is only when you put into context what the object stands for, the events that placed it there and an impression of the impact on the surroundings that these objects are perceived as ugly.

The organic nature of the decay of the cars seems to place them naturally in the environment, but on the other hand they symbolize the destructive impact man has had on the environment. Although the car is definitely a manmade object, it seems almost organic sitting and perhaps sinking into the ancient bog. Metal occurs naturally in nature and in the care we have constrained it into an artificial shape to meet our needs. Rusting allows the metal to return to a more natural form. It is a great irony that the cars seem to take on the colour of the lanscape as they decay. Stripped of the paint and rusting their colour complements the colours of the surrounding bog. The burning of the cars has accelerated the degradation of the vehicle. But the perception of a rapid returning to the earth is false, as some of the materials in the car will take decades to decay and the plastics used in manufacture may never degrade.

The boglands of Ireland have a strange unnatural atmospheric quality and are places of great colour. They are places that defy the national myth that Ireland is a grey country. They exhibit a wide range of changing colour, with on some days an incredible variation in the tone and hue of this colour with each passing second. It is only in recent times that we in Ireland have started to appreciate their significance as part of our natural heritage. But many people still mistakenly perceive the bogs as empty and not useful. Cutting the bog to provide fuel almost justified their existence. Planting them with conifers was a way to make use of what was considered a natural waste of land.  Many are now preserved and protected, so this now no longer occurs to as great an extent as it did in the past, and we are beginning to realize the significance of these precious habitats. The Liffey Head Bog near where most of these images were taken is an EU protected Special Area of Conservation and part of the Wicklow Mountain National Park.

It is quite symbolic, however, that they are often now used as dumps for our waste even though this is in theory an illegal activity. Littering in bogs is in a sense a manifestation of the perception of bogs as empty spaces that need to be filled with our detritus. The abandonment of cars in the bog is a form of littering, but it is not just littering by those who abandon them but also by those who are responsible for removing them. Many of the cars remain in the area for many months and as well as being an eyesore for locals passing through the area, they provide a negative image of environmental neglect to the many tourists who visit this scenically beautiful part of the country. There is neglect and irresponsibility displayed by those responsible for removing the cars. Recent reports of illegal dumping in Wicklow and the laissez faire attitude to conservation we still have in this country have concentrated my mind on this aspect of the interpretation of the work.

In our modern world cars have a special social status as well as their functional use. They, although not the most efficient form of transport (especially in cities), are the most popular in every Western society. This is particularly significant in a country with a very inefficient transport system. Many Irish people have an almost personal relationship with their cars or view them as personal accessories to their own self esteem. So if their car is violated in some way it is seen as a personal attack. These stolen cars have been wantonly destroyed. Those who have had their own personal property violated or their car stolen may visualize the photographs with sadness. The destruction of the cars by burning indicates that not only is their violation but also annihilation with disregard for the property and belongings of others. The symbolism of cars in our modern society can be seen by the significant fact that when riots take place then cars are one of the objects that the rioters usually focus on and destroy.

The vehicles left in the Sally Gap are burnt out and may be abandoned by either criminals or joyriders. Criminals commonly steal a car to use it in a crime. The criminal destroys the stolen car to eliminate any evidence that has been left behind. They will have another form of transport nearby to take them away. They have used the mountain roads to avoid detection by the Gardai. The criminal uses the car in a different way to the joyrider.

Joyriding, although not specific to Ireland, has been a problem in this country for many decades. It is a social problem that is most prevalent in the more socially deprived suburbs of large urban centres. Joyriding is not a criminal offence so joyriders are usually charged with minor offences, so there is no significant deterrent to the activity. This limits the powers of the Gardai to prevent it. The problem has been concentrated mainly in Dublin with the majority of joyriders being from the capital, but in recent years it has spread to become a significant occurrence in other cities such as Cork and Limerick. Most joyriders are teenage boys and the average age of offenders is about seventeen. There seems to be a progression in the career of a joyrider with a passive role being played from a very young age (either watching or as a passenger). Then the child will be more active in the driving and will drive a “company” car, which is a car bought for the purpose of joyriding. Company cars are cheap cars that the joyrider uses to hone their driving skills. They are becoming increasingly available as people who want to get rid of cars that have failed the National Car Test and we live in a culture of the disposable car with little recycling facilities readily available.

Although joyriding is obviously a problem related to social deprivation, it is not a common activity, even in the most deprived of inner city estates. It is only a minority who joyride in the estates and they are usually very unpopular. It is, however, a glamorous pursuit for those who are in the clique and it provides status to those who have low esteem and are poor achievers in other aspects of their lives. Company cars are usually driven around the estates where the joyrider lives and then destroyed and abandoned, but often they act as playgrounds for very young children who may become future joyriders. After this the older joyrider may progress to stealing cars or other crimes and they venture further out beyond the estates where they live. For some joyriding is just a passing adolescent phase and they may go on to have children who subsequently joyride. In some cases, the cars are abandoned up in the Dublin or Wicklow Mountains, as were the cars photographed in this series of images. It is likely the buzz of the speed and the danger that is the attraction to joyriding and it is the whole process that is important from the stealing to the driving dangerously to the destruction of the vehicle.

There does not seem to be any fear of potential accidents and this is part of the bravado to assume you have superior driving skills. They do not feel any guilt or remorse as they feel that the owners of the car are rich and will have the car insured. Any victims of their dangerous driving should not have got in the way. The ritualistic burning of the car before abandonment is an essential part of the enjoyment and the rush. The crescendo of the experience is the spectacular “whoosh” of the petrol tank as it ignites.

© Conor Caffrey 2007

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