Emeritus professor at Ulster University in Jordanstown, Northern Ireland
Bree T. Hocking
New York: Berghahn Books. 2015
244 pages. £60. Hardback
I will give you my punch-line first: this book has a lot to offer which is insightful and original. Any criticisms I have about it relate to form, not substance, so I will leave them until much later. So, first, the author’s argument.
Many have written about public space in Northern Ireland, whether it be in relation to parades, the flying of flags or the painting of murals. Although much of what is involved in disputes over these issues relates to relationships between citizens and the state, it is too often – and too glibly – represented as a conflict between citizens and citizens, ie, that the disputes are solely sectarian at root. The value of the approach of this book is for the most part to move away from those confrontations which are well known to another arena of public space which of itself appears beyond contestation, at least in the terms which are said to be most common in Northern Ireland. There has been a sustained state policy of transforming public space in the name of “shared space” – creating shopping malls, peace bridges and so-called peace walls, public art in prominent places and so on. The purpose of all of this is not simply material or architectural; it is, as Hocking documents, highly ideological. The local is said to be bad – insular, introverted, locked in paranoia and trauma – and these factors find their voice in representation in local areas, for example, children’s play parks named after “terrorists”, and murals displaying hooded gunmen. If this is the problem, then the solution is obvious: suppress the local and bring on the international. The latter is said to be inclusive, welcoming, inspiring. In fact, in Belfast and Derry the rationalisation of shared space sounds almost religious; public art, for example, is claimed to have the power to effect civic pride, cohesion and economic regeneration. If the local is the site of confrontation, then the little bits of the global dropped into urban space are islands of harmony and normality whose influence will hopefully ripple out.
Now, like many millenarian dreams there is nothing wrong in itself with hoping or wishing. But that should not preclude interrogating the claims of the evangelical prophet. This is what the author does meticulously and brilliantly in this book. There are many levels of critique possible. First, what is there to be shared in this shared space? All too often it is nothing more or less than shopping. Consumerism is the most facile of interactions and yet it is at the core of the rebranding of the city centres of Belfast and Derry as well as a number of out-of-town malls. The difference between this and, say, the equivalent in the mid-West United States is that, if the argument is to be believed, for Northern Ireland these places become temples not simply of consumerism but of social transformation. The least that can be concluded is that accepting this involves a giant leap of faith.
And if the claims for consumerism are fragile, those for a lot of public art are threadbare. In the centre of Belfast there is a public art exhibit involving in effect two twisted girders. Approaching Belfast on the motorway from the west is a large structure of two geodesic domes, one inside the other. The latter artwork is called “Rise” and the former “The Spirit of Belfast”. The claims for “Rise” are particularly grand. It stands in a large area of empty space where motorway and roads converge. On one side is a Catholic working class area and on the other a Protestant working class area; it is what is known in Belfast as an interface zone where stone-throwing between teenagers is not uncommon. So, what is the point of “Rise”? According to the promotional literature, “it says confidence, it says outward-looking, it says international”. The hidden message is more definitive: the sculpture says: don’t look at the local economic and social conditions either side of the roundabout, don’t look at the political tensions between communities, don’t look at massive youth unemployment and high youth suicide rates nearby, don’t mention the war and don’t dwell on the past. “Rise” is supposed to aid reconciliation by looking to the future and seeking to bring about local economic transformation through tourism. But the tourists don’t come to this spot; the most they see is a brief glimpse of the sculpture as their bus passes. More to the point, the tourists will never spend any money in these adjoining communities which might be a vehicle for some sort of economic transformation, however slight. And as for reconciliation: there is no evidence that the sculpture speaks to local people. This alienation is evident in this and other public art in the most fundamental of ways; the artists are not local, the forms are generic with the slight gloss of a name which seems to speak to local history and concerns but could quite easily exist elsewhere under a different name. They are part of what the author tellingly refers to as “civic identikit”. They are supposed to be unique to the place but are in fact global, an exercise in “staged authenticity” where all the complexity, ambiguity and contradiction of the local has been removed.
There are some spaces where this distance from local people is even more pronounced. One such is the so-called “peace wall” between the nationalist and unionist working class areas of West Belfast. Nine metres high and 800 metres long, the construction is an eyesore. It symbolises the level of fear in this segregated part of Belfast where the walls are intended as and supported by locals as protection against attacks. While the government has set a target of two decades for removing this and the dozens of other “peace walls” in Belfast, recent surveys show that the majority of locals regard even that deadline as too soon. The West Belfast wall is covered with paintings and artworks. The former are mostly spraycan, done by local and foreign artists, while the latter are often sponsored by state and official organisations. Again, great claims are made for this elongated display. The author quotes one artist as saying that painting on the wall is part of “the big picture of moving forward”. But no locals walk by this wall. The only people to be seen are the tourists who are handed markers by tour guides to write sentiments which they regard as profound but are mostly inane over the completed art works. The author’s conversations with locals reveal that they relate to the wall solely as a material structure; its art work for the most part is meaningless to them. Which raises the question: how can a visually oppressive wall covered with art works which do not speak to locals lead to local conflict transformation and reconciliation? Again, faith seems to be for the public art’s supporters the most significant factor.
There is little evidence of any popular local organising to remove or transform these alien art forms. Yet local people do reject the ideology inherent in the structures in different ways. They continue to use the open space for confrontation rather than reconciliation. Teenagers utilise the artwork as a place to gather and hang out, oblivious to its supposed uplifting potential. Or people simply ignore the displays altogether while they go about their everyday local and presumably benighted business. Hocking covers these forms of resistance in her final chapter. But more could be done to examine the ways in which the local expressions of such communities, rejected out of hand by the urban planners as being parochial and backward-looking, in themselves contain a critique of and challenge to the state, however crudely or partially articulated. So the progressive task for this society is surely not simply to bemoan the supposed narrowness of many of its citizens but to find ways in which to encourage authentic resistance and a genuine reclamation of space.
Although she does not do so directly, Hocking has done an excellent job in laying part of the groundwork on which an alternative vision could be constructed. That said, I have a few criticisms of the book. The main one is that it could have cut back on the jargon to present a more reader-friendly approach. This is a general problem for those authors who turn their doctoral theses into books. What works for one scenario is not necessarily the best approach for the other. Thus, drawing on Manuel Castells, the author repeatedly talks about “the space of flows” and “the space of places”. The former relates to power, information and production and ultimately to contemporary capitalism while the latter refers to the physical communities in which people live. I know it is important to be precise in defining one’s concepts, but after a while I found these phrases annoying and as such counterproductive; they did less to explain the lived reality of people’s lives than less esoteric words could have done.
Belfast and Derry are certainly transformed places. The Peace Bridge linking Derry city centre to the former Ebrington Barracks is undoubtedly attractive. And when the sun hits “Rise” in Belfast late in the evening it is certainly a spectacular sight. But beyond the material reality one has to consider the ideological battle going on between capital and state on the one hand and citizens on the other hand, especially those citizens at the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum. Despite my few criticisms, this book pulls away the curtain to reveal the battlefield itself and the struggle for control of public space in one contemporary post-conflict society.