Belfast Telegraph

US artist Suzanne Lacy: It was important not to take a position on Brexit

Farmers, horse-owners, villagers and scouts living on both sides of the border have contributed to a thought-provoking artwork, Across and In-Between, which can be seen outside the Ulster Museum until tomorrow night as part of Belfast International Arts Festival. US artist Suzanne Lacy, who oversaw the project, talks to Linda Stewart about the wide-ranging opinions expressed by the people who took part

Project chief: Suzanne Lacy
Project chief: Suzanne Lacy
Some of the images in the exhibition
Some of the images in the exhibition
Grant Clark

What happens when you equip a group of scouts with kayaks and paddles and then set them loose on a river in search of the Irish border? You'd expect the result to be confusion, with youngsters paddling in search of an imaginary line that runs up the centre of the watercourse.

That's one of the intriguing moments in an ambitious new artwork that explores what a border is, how a border shapes the lives of the people who live there and the voice it gives to those people.

Across and In-Between has been in the making since the start of this year and is a two-art artwork made up of The Yellow Line and the Border People's Parliament.

It is helmed by American artist Suzanne Lacy, whose work has been exhibited everywhere from Tate Modern to the Whitney in New York, and who was formative in shaping a new art of social engagement in the latter half of the 20th century.

Working with Belfast producer Cian Smyth, her project features scores of interviews with people in some of the most isolated parts of the Irish border about their daily lives and their relationship with their landscape.

But where it spins off on a trajectory from what we've seen before is the Yellow Line itself - inspired by the deep yellow of the gorse hedgerows that are scattered across Northern Ireland's landscape, the artists teamed up with the border people to draw and film yellow lines across the landscape, making use of the occupations or hobbies they pursue.

The result is one of the highlights of the Belfast International Arts Festival. It is a three-screen film projection by artist Mark Thomas which will be displayed across the facade of the Ulster Museum from 6pm to 9pm until tomorrow evening.

Some of the images in the exhibition
Some of the images in the exhibition

The soundtrack has been put together by artist Pedro Rebello, who Suzanne says has done an amazing job of capturing the sonic quality of the border - the sounds of the people and the landscape.

"In a sense, this is a poem that will be projected onto the surface of the Ulster Museum," she explains.

There are yellow-clad dancers crowding the bridge at the border town of Pettigo, horses cantering across a yellow powder line daubed on the grass, kayakers paddling in search of the border, runners plodding their way up Cuilcagh Mountain in Co Fermanagh and farmers piling yellow-wrapped silage bales in lines across the meadows.

Two shipping containers have been erected in front of the Ulster Museum to allow visitors to explore the artwork - one with a sonic installation by Pedro Rebello (left) and another featuring video interviews with border people carried out by artist Conan McKeever.

"We had one very funny interview with twin boys of about 10 years old, recorded on video," Suzanne says.

"Somebody asked them about the border and they said, 'Well I haven't seen it, but I think it's yellow'. That humour is a part of what we've been exploring."

Some of the images in the exhibition
Some of the images in the exhibition

A hundred years ago, the border was no more than an imaginary line, a proposition that had yet to be put into practice, and it was at its most visible during the Troubles, when roads were closed, bridges destroyed and armoured checkpoints raised.

Twenty years on from the Good Friday Agreement, it's relatively invisible again, but the return of those physical barriers have become a distinct prospect - and the idea of giving ownership of that line to the people living there is what this project is about.

When Suzanne was invited to lead the 1418-Now project, it struck a chord because the LA-based artist hails originally from California.

Some of the images in the exhibition
Some of the images in the exhibition

"As you know, in California we have our own border issues, so what with Trump trying to build a wall there, this is very timely," she explains.

She and the team journeyed across Ireland's borderlands, from Carlingford in the south-east to the north-west corner, taking in the oft-overlooked middle regions between Pettigo in Co Donegal and Newtownbutler in Co Fermanagh. "This project has been about getting to know the border and the people on the border. The places we've been have been largely in Fermanagh, but also Co Derry, Co Tyrone and Co Armagh. We've been criss-crossing along the border from end to the other," Suzanne says. "I was interested in what Irish and Northern Irish artists had already been doing on the border - there is such a rich heritage of work.

"It was very important to make sure I wasn't taking a simplistic view of the history of Ireland and Northern Ireland as they meet on the border.

"The first thing that was important to me was not to come at this as a singular person from another country. A lot of ideas came up that were very parallel to my experience in the States, but it was important not to take a position on Brexit, but to allow people along the border to express their ideas.

"What might be needed was the point of view of the daily lives of people who live on the border - how does the border impact on their lives now and what did they think about the future?"

The main questions being explored, she says, were: "What is the border in our imagination and in our histories, and what is the border physically? And how do you bring the voice and expectations of people who live there to the fore and right into Stormont?"

Around 150 people have been involved in the project, including ordinary people, writers and artists, and they were invited to the Border People's Parliament, hosted in Parliament Buildings, Stormont, at the weekend as part of the festival. The events celebrated their involvement and engaged them in a series of recorded discussions about questions that have arisen over the course of the project - resulting in the Yellow Manifesto, a set of principles based on what can be learned from life in the borderlands and due to be published to coincide with the crunch Brexit border summit in November.

"One of the questions was, is the border a third space that we should understand in its uniqueness? Somebody in Belfast has a very different experience of the border from somebody living in Pettigo - in Pettigo they walk across the bridge and they're crossing the border," she says.

"The other question is, do people who live on the border develop a certain kind of character? Is there something we can learn from people who live there? When you're a farmer who lives near the border, your neighbours are people who are other farmers, not people who are from the south or the north. There are decisions that are being made about the lives of people who live there without serious consideration of their voices or their preferences."

Grant Clark
Grant Clark

The interviewers didn't specifically ask about Brexit, but it always came up.

"It ranges from... if you talk to a young person, they are pretty unconscious of it and they don't know where the border is," Suzanne says. "But it you talk to people who lived through hard times in the Troubles, and they are very worried about whether this brings back the border. It varies from people thinking they are never going to bring back a hard border to people who are moving their business to either side of the border just in case."

What does Suzanne make of Brexit herself? She says she works all over the world and is interested in the commonalities between people and how the political system should be geared towards protecting the needs of the vulnerable and powerless.

"I would say that in general my politics would question the relationship between the current rise of nationalism and of identity politics in a way that causes people to draw firmer and firmer boundaries," she says. "I think America has become a country divided - perhaps it was always divided - but the divisions are being nurtured and spread and the imbalance is not healthy.

"The rise of nationalism has created a pathway for prejudice, particularly prejudice against black people and prejudice against Muslim people. The ability to express this hostility to the other is very disturbing."

Suzanne says she sees the Brexit vote as a real expression of fear of immigration, a fear that is also being stoked by Trump. But she adds that her previous work on a project in the north of England with Muslim communities suggests the divisions in the UK don't run as deep: "I think on a political level and a social level, there is much more interest here in breaking down those barriers than in the US."

Across and In-Between runs at the Ulster Museum until tomorrow, with projections every 15 minutes from 6pm until 9pm. The exhibition opens from 10am until 9pm. More details are available at

Everything's still up in the air: land owner

Part of the project was filmed on land owned by Grant Clark (53) at Magheraveely, three miles from Newtownbutler, Co Fermanagh, and three from Clones, Co Monaghan.

He is married to Evelyn (47) and they have two children, Oliver (8) and Anna (6). He grew up in Co Cavan until he was in P4, when his family moved to Lisnaskea, but he found it hard to settle in Co Fermanagh.

Grant says he wasn't much aware of the Troubles as a youngster. "I didn't pass much remark until I went to work as an electrical contractor and I knew there was something wrong. None of my family were in the security forces, but I remember one of my bosses, a German man, was shot and murdered by the IRA because his franchise was doing the catering in the police station," he says.

"A lot of my friends would have been Catholic. I never got involved - I tried to get along with everybody. I was a happy-go-lucky chap."

During the Troubles, he worked for a time at Sean Quinn's cement factory in Co Cavan and that often meant long queues at the border checkpoint.

"You just queued until you got through. We had to be in Ballyconnell by 8am and you needed to be early to get through in the morning. You could have been there until 11am if somebody took a dislike to you. I wouldn't want that hard border checkpoint again," he says.

Grant says Brexit needs to be sorted so that people know what is happening one way or the other. "It's like the political situation - it's a bit up in the air. They've had a lot of time to talk about it and still nothing is sorted out," he says.

"It's going to be difficult. People were trying to go in (to vote) with very little information on what was going to happen. I 'd nearly say there should be another poll with people explaining what is going to happen. People were going into it very blind."

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