Radio Broadcast: ''The Road to Recovery' (1938)' by Laurie Robins
- 16 July — 05 September 2020
Agitation Co-op is an exhibition that investigates the subject of landscape from a range of vantage points; not only social and political ideologies but also, mapping and topography. The exhibition includes artworks by Michele Horrigan, Catriona Leahy, Laurie Robins, and Libita Sibungu. It is accompanied by an online screening programme highlighting films by Forensic Architecture, Melanie Smith, and Eva Richardson McCrea, Frank Sweeney and the Dublin Dockworkers Preservation Society.
Michele Horrigan’s Stigma Damages is a decade-long ongoing project that calls attention to the Aughinish Alumina refinery in her hometown of Askeaton, Co. Limerick (1). Horrigan spotlights Aughinish, and its implications in local ecology and economy, to connect the global aluminium industry to the bank of the River Shannon Estuary (2). When aluminium particles are extracted from bauxite ore, tonnes of red dust are left behind and accumulated in gigantic heaps at ground level (3). Known locally as ‘red mud’, the waste residue is watered constantly in order to reduce the amount of toxic dust particles from becoming airborne and poisoning local fauna and flora, as depicted in Horrigan’s new film. The film, narrated by Amy Conroy, explores the ‘greenwashing’ practices at the site, including a nearby nature reserve with no visible birds, insects, or marine life, picnic areas completely overshadowed by the enormous refinery, and futile attempts at beautifying the industrial landscape by planting decorative topiary hedges (4). Shown in the exhibition on a boardroom-style monitor stand, Stigma Damages, 2021, also includes archival promotional footage describing Aughinish’s production output and the refinery processes from a business perspective. As with Horrigan’s architectural scale-model of the site, with the red mud deposits glaringly visible, she utilises a corporate visual language to undermine and call attention to this industrial behemoth and its grossly negative effects on the local environment and community.
Just under 15km across the river from Aughinish Alumina is the Shannon Free Zone, established in 1959, it is the world’s first modern free-trade zone, and Ireland’s largest concentration of US businesses outside Dublin (5). Laurie Robins films the trade zone and adjacent Shannon Airport in the opening scene of his film, double vision, 2021. The queasy shot from a small boat sets the tone for the film that traces a specific history of capitalist violence and oppression, revealing the infrastructure that adapts and controls the circumstances sustaining it. While located in Butte, Montana during 2020, Robins conducted significant research on the town’s history and the consequences of large-scale industrialisation throughout the twentieth century by the Anaconda Mining Company (ACM). double vision employs a stereoscopic photograph of the ACM copper mine in Butte, from 1920, to deliver a narrative of genocide, migration, extraction, protest, and unionisation. Using a technique of detailed observation, the pair of images are scrutinised, revealing clues about the mining company’s strategies to exploit their workers and siphon profit at every stage of production (6). The 1920 murder of Thomas Manning, a miner shot by gunmen of the ACM during a strike called by the Industrial Workers of the World, is counterpointed by Robins with contemplative scenes throughout the film, looking away from the present day open-pit mines that have since swallowed much of the town, to the daily life of Butte’s inhabitants, that have their own relationships to the legacy of corruption underfoot. As visitors observe the ‘floating’ screen showing his film in the gallery, Robins informs us that ACM’s infrastructure maintains a link today to global financial markets, logistics and labour supplies through the Port of Montana, another free zone on the edge of Butte. The implication is that, there, REC Silicon produces approximately 70% of the world’s silicon gas, an essential component in the gallery’s TV monitor, or the computer or phone you may be using to read this text.
The monochrome imagery throughout the exhibition echoes the ‘documentary tradition of reportage, testimony, evidence’ in black and white film/photography, and these examples of mediatized memory can inform and govern our perception of past events (7). Libita Sibungu’s research of mining history in the Namibian National Archive awakens connections between the displacement of raw materials from the earth with the Black bodies who were photographed carrying out this extractive labour. Sibungu’s photograms from her Quantum Ghost series (8) are a direct transference of object to image that reimagine a dormant inherited archive as a living record. Sibungu collected stones, shells and dirt from the Namibian landscape and brought them to England, echoing her father’s exile to Cornwall from Namibia in the 1980s (9). This new physical archive of displaced materials, as well as seeds, sage and crystals with healing properties, in addition to fragments of photographs and promotional material from Namibia’s social and political history, are exposed onto light-sensitive paper scaled to the artist’s own body, capturing a new memory of ancestral experience. The auratic prints hold and emit light. They manifest a vision of subterranean growth and decay that resonates with the violent flows of natural resources and human bodies across time, illuminated by Sibungu as a projection of cosmic and universal energy. Sibungu’s exhumation of the past, in both material and narrative, unearths the reverberations of colonialism and diasporic migration embedded within landscapes.
The Irish bogland also holds traces of occupation and dislocation, as communities were evicted from profitable farming sites by the British landlord class during the 1800s. Catriona Leahy’s practice explores landscapes that are deemed redundant or unproductive, considering their latent vitality, and in the case of peat bogs, the ecological necessity of storing carbon, reducing CO2 emissions and improving biodiversity (10). Metabolic Rift, 2020, a disjointed grid of twenty-four photographs, references an irreparable rupture between people and landscape in relation to exploitation of natural resources. Leahy’s cut and collaged negatives are reconfigured into vertical strips that represent the strata of the earth and the temporal history visible in the layers of compressed plant life that forms the bog. Leahy’s process mimetically resonates with the cutting and overlapping of the peat landscape as a sartorial (11) action, in which folding, stitching, and tearing both merges and separates surfaces, compounding the immovably slow geological formation of the land with the ease and delicacy of fabric. Leahy’s Critical Zone: Bog Study I, II, III, 2020, considers surface in relation to Bruno Latour’s description of the ‘critical zone’, the top few kilometres of Earth’s surface within which all organisms enact natural systems of exchange that generate life on this planet (12). Here Leahy’s perspective shifts from the pictorial standing perspective most frequently associated with artistic depictions of landscape to that of a technological aerial view. In these works, her photographic collages are enlarged to a macro scale in the darkroom: a thread pulled apart strand-by-strand is abstracted to resemble a computer generated wireframe model of a cave or tunnel, and a speck of dust trapped under a strip of sellotape can be viewed as a crater observed with satellite imagery.
The four artists survey areas of geographical unsettlement that span continents and hemispheres of the globe. Taking only a diagrammatic view of the surface level illustrates present-day activity: boundaries and borders, the division of urban and rural, and ways in which mankind has imposed itself on the landscape through industry and habitat destruction. The artists in this exhibition, through their individual practices, uncover faults in the terrain, exposing previously obscured subterranean narratives from throughout history that link the processes of natural resource extraction and industrialisation to their effects on the environment, and surrounding communities. In an Irish context, this relates to historical colonial rule and fragmentation of the landscape, and how these issues are echoed by a systemic market venture from the Irish Government over recent decades. Taking an international viewpoint these fissures are strained further by the global economy, the threat of war and mass displacement of populations. The seemingly disparate landscapes in this exhibition, both local and international, are connected below the surface, kept out of view by global power systems, but are unearthed by investigatory and determined artistic practices.
(1) ‘Stigma Damages is a term bandied around in the legal profession to define possible loss or suspected contamination due to environmental circumstance.’ Michele Horrigan, Stigma Damages (Self-published, 2013). Horrigan’s project has formed several exhibitions of archival material, photography, video, and found artefacts, as well as a publication, since 2011.
(2) Robert Allen details the negative impact of chemical pollutants from Aughinish Alumina on local communities around Askeaton in the chapter ‘Askeaton: In the Shadow of the Dragon’, in his book, No Global: The People of Ireland Versus the Multinationals (Pluto Books, 2004).
(3) ‘Aughinish Alumina wants to increase the height of its large bauxite residue disposal area (BRDA) which covers an area of 183 hectares. It claims the increased height will provide an additional nine-year capacity for storing bauxite residue at the facility and allow for the disposal of 1.59 million tonnes per annum.’ Sean McCárthaigh, ‘Auginish Alumina secures approval for Foynes expansion’, The Irish Times, April 9, 2021
(4) ‘The refinery’s management has pursued an ongoing policy of corporate greenwashing, conveying false impressions and misleading information that their products and activities are, if you were to believe them, environmentally sound.’ Excerpt from Michele Horrigan, Stigma Damages, Video, 2021. Courtesy the artist.
(5) A recent ‘Special Report’ (paid content advertisement) proclaiming the successes of the Shannon Free Zone in association with American Chamber of Commerce Ireland was published in the Irish Times, in July 2019. Sandra O’Connell, ‘Shannon Free Zone attracting inward investment to the mid-west’, The Irish Times, July 3, 2019
(6) To paraphrase Ying Sze Pek’s essay on Robins; he films with an ‘unblinking eye’: panning, scanning and scrolling through. There is a relationship to Bertolt Brecht’s maxim of ‘complex seeing’, in which imagery, and the way it functions, is condensed and honed in on a specific subject. This tactic encourages close looking from the viewer as with the filmmaker. Ying Sze Pek, ‘Pages and Screens’ in ‘FREE TRADE OR ELSE’* (South London Gallery, 2019)
(7) Sarah Durcan, ‘Mediatized Memories’ in Memory and Intermediality in Artists’ Moving Image (Palgrave Macmillan, 2021)
(8) Quantum Ghost is a major work by Libita Sibungu exhibited in Gasworks, London and Spike Island, Bristol (2019). ‘Comprising an immersive sound installation, a series of large-scale photograms and a programme of live performances, Quantum Ghost maps a journey through archives and territories related to the artist’s heritage. Sibungu digs deep into personal documents and oral histories tracing her family tree across different mining regions and colonial geographies of extraction.’ https://www.gasworks.org.uk/exhibitions/libita-clayton-2019-01-24/
(9) 'A shepherd in this work is the artist’s late father, who disappeared during her youth. As a member of the South West African People’s Organisation, a political movement that fought for Namibia’s independence from South African apartheid rule, he met Sibungu’s mother while studying mining in Cornwall after going into exile in the 1980s. In Sibungu’s work, we bear witness to the gale behind this absence, to how a childhood curiosity can transform into a search party later in life.’ Kadish Morris, ‘How Artists Are Using the Power of Personal Histories to Tackle the Legacy of Colonialism’, Frieze, No. 203, May 2019
(10) Joe Riley muddies the water of this conversation by arguing that the seemingly well-intended plans of Bord na Móna (the semi-State corporation tasked with developing Ireland’s peatlands) to ‘fight climate change’ by ending peat harvesting operations this year, may well be linked to expansion into other more profitable forms of energy production, with questionable effects on the environment. Joe Riley, ‘Country End Near, Country End Far’, in ‘FREE TRADE OR ELSE’* (South London Gallery, 2019)
(11) Giuliana Bruno, Surface: Matters of Aesthetics, Materiality and Media (The University of Chicago Press, 2014)
(12) Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel, Ed., Critical Zones: The Science and Politics of Landing on Earth (The MIT Press, 2020)
Each artist has shared several images that have informed their research, which are displayed in the Gallery window and can be viewed from the street outside.
Michele Horrigan | Lives and works Askeaton, Co. Limerick. Exhibitions include 39th EVA International, Limerick (2020); El sauce ve de cabeza la imagen de la garza, TEA Tenerife Espacio de las Artes, Tenerife (2020); Where Does The Law Stand With Leprechauns? (solo), The LAB, Dublin (2018); Bandits Live Comfortably in the Ruins, Flat Time House, London (2016); REVERSE!PUGIN, Lismore Castle Arts, Waterford (2015); Stigma Damages (solo); Occupy Space, Limerick (2014). She is the Founder and Curator of Askeaton Contemporary Arts.
Catriona Leahy | Lives and works Co. Kildare/Dublin. Exhibitions include How the land lies, Sirius Arts Centre, Cobh (2020); Pastures, The Library Project, Dublin; Fast Slow Fast, CCA, Derry (2019); Encountering the Land, VISUAL, Carlow (2018); Unfolding Landscape, De Cacaofabriek, Helmond, The Netherlands (2018); Rising, The Belfry, St John’s Bethnal Green, London (2017); Coup de Ville, 3rd Triennial Exhibition of Contemporary Art, St. Niklass, Belgium (2016); Relief in Time, (solo), Rijksmuseum Twenthe, The Netherlands (2015). She is a Three Year Studio Member at TBG+S.
Laurie Robins | Lives and works UK/USA. Exhibitions include ‘FREE TRADE OR ELSE’* (solo), at South London Gallery (2019), Transmediale, Berlin (2019), Whitney Independent Studio Program, EFA Project Space, New York (2017). The Political Animal, The Showroom, London (2017); Monitoring, 35th Kasseler Dokfest, Kunstverein Kassel (2017). He recently completed his MA in Research Architecture at Goldsmiths University, London.
Libita Sibungu | Lives and works Namibia/UK. Exhibitions include Quantum Ghost, Spike Island, Bristol, and Gasworks, London (both solo, 2019); sand-worm, Whitstable Biennale (2018); 4717, RCA/LUX, Dyson Gallery, Royal College of Art, London (2018); Memento Mori, Kalashnikovv 3.0, Johannesburg (2018); DEBUNK, Arnolfini, Bristol (2017); History Lessons: Fluid Records, South London Gallery/Iniva, London (2017); Going Along Without a Body, Iklectik, London (2017); Lexis Over Land—Towards a Feminist Geography, Tremenheere Sculpture Gallery, Cornwall (2017); Gal-Dem WOC Friday Late, Victoria and Albert Museum, London (2016); Beyond Words, Book Works, Central Library, Hull (2016); Hard Copy, Home.alone, Clermont–Ferrand (2016). Her work was included in the Diaspora Pavilion at the 57th Venice Biennale 2017.
Agitation Co-op was scheduled to open at TBG+S in July 2020. To mark the original opening date, Temple Bar Gallery + Studios presented a new work, 'The Road to Recovery' (1938), by exhibiting artist Laurie Robins. The artwork comprises a new recording of William F. Dunne’s radio broadcast ‘The Road to Recovery, Security, Democracy and Peace’ (1938), read by Julie Crowley and recorded in the Carpenters Union Hall, Butte, Montana in June 2020. Find out more about 'The Road to Recovery' (1938) here.