Introductory text by Matt Packer
Curraghinalt by Emily McFarland is the first video work of a three-part series titled Dtan-a-goo-saran-dthu (The Wind’s Changed) situated in the Sperrin Mountains in West Tyrone.
The series title borrows from a recording that was transcribed by acclaimed folklorist Michael J. Murphy, who spent time in the Sperrin Mountains meeting with native Irish speakers on behalf of the Irish Folklore Commission in the 1950s. The significance of the title goes beyond the topography of this particular landscape. In her own words, McFarland describes Dtan-a-good-saran-dthu as a kind of ‘incantation’; a colloquialism that carries forward a compound of time-frames (past, present and future); and one that moves through the social and temporal relations of this place in a way that can never be measured by the lines of a map. It follows that McFarland’s work is as much about the political and ecological imbrication of language and lived experience, as it is about the landscape as an addressable site or subject.
Curraghinalt captures the voices and testimonies of local community members on day 387 of their occupation of lands that have been acquired by Dalradian Gold, a Canadian gold-mining company whose plans will see the landscape of the Sperrin Mountains transformed. An application – the largest ever planning submission in the history of Ireland, North and South – has been sent to the Department for Infrastructure, where it awaits approval. The plans include the construction of mining facilities, processing plants and ancillary works; an enormous campus of heavy industry that will advance Dalradian’s commercial interests in the extraction of what they describe as one of the ‘world’s most promising undeveloped gold deposits’. With yields estimated at a value at 4 billion euro, the commercial benefits have been promoted by Dalradian and by sections of the political establishment as a way of helping to sell the plans as a major stimulus to the local and regional economy. The plans continue to be bitterly divisive within the local community of Greencastle and surrounding area, with fears of irreversible damage to both the environment and public health.
Through a number of fixed-frame sequences, McFarland’s video introduces the provisional architecture of the community protest (the self-appointed ‘Greencastle Peoples Office’ consisting of two caravans and garden seating), stationed at the proposed site entrance of the Dalradian works. We see placards that have been staked into the nearby landscape, and adorned to the caravans’ exteriors: ‘Greencastle children: more precious than gold’; ‘Dalradian: Out of Ireland’; ‘Dalradian are toxic to our health’; ‘You are now entering Gold free Greencastle’. In another frame, we see a postcard of the General Post Office in Dublin fixed to one of the caravan’s windows. In sharing the GPO acronym the Greencastle Peoples Office signals the memory of Irish rebellion in the early twentieth century, evoking the fallen martyrs of Republicanism and the noble efforts to overthrow the British state as antecedents to their cause.
It’s clear that the protest is more than a singular environmental concern. As these scenes of contestation are poised against the still grey air of the surrounding landscape, thickly accented voices speak about their campaign. With no introduction to themselves or their circumstances, we hear the voices of one, then two, male voices speak with a gruff rally of detail about Dalradian’s plans, their skepticism of a process of commercial transfers, and concerns of industrial cyanide usage, among other things. The video holds together the different scales and speeds of narrative; from the globalist agendas of remote multinationals looking for a short term return on their investment, through to the crony politics of Northern Ireland and its kow-towing to corporate-led development opportunity, through to the generational effects on the families that will be left to rebuild their lives with the after effects of a ravished landscape, once Dalradian have sold off and departed.
The battle-lines are drawn in language too. A 10,000 page planning application and a complexity of bureaucratic processes are the offensive to which these community members are required to respond with their own situated knowledge, and in their own tongue. As viewers, some of this becomes hazy in local details that don’t seem to translate. We never see the faces or the figures of those who speak. Nor are we able to determine their age or other identifiers. We can never really know whether it’s we (or our proxies: the camera and sound recorder) that are being addressed, or whether it’s through an entrusted weave of relations that their testimonies are being shared. As the video progresses, other voices come and go and the view of the landscape widens; the fixed-view of the camera detects only the slightest movement of leaves in the breeze.
Writing about the photographs of Leslie Shedden – a photographer that documented the commercial mining industry in Cape Breton in Nova Scotia in the 1950s – Allan Sekula described how mining was ‘one of the first technical endeavours to be systematically represented by pictorial means’. Sekula cites the woodcut illustrations of Georgius Agricola’s De Re Metalica from 1556 as a precursor to the camera’s surveyance role in the frontier imaginations that would arrive 300 years later. The camera developed as an essential tool for the imperious gaze of colonialism and the extractive speculations of capitalism in the 19th century. In our present day, we inherit the ambiguity of the camera’s power to produce images of landscapes (any landscapes) with propriety and subjecthood.
In Curraghinalt, the disembodied voices and accompanying subtitles that overlay the landscape of the Sperrin Mountains demonstrate that this particular landscape is not ours to cast ourselves upon. It is not being offered to us in that sense. Instead, we arrive at the landscape of McFarland’s video as though trying to catch up, like late-arriving interlocutors at the edge of a conversation that started a long time ago.
It was postcolonialist writer Édouard Glissant who wrote of ‘the right to opacity’. He was writing in 1981 in response to the way that the native people of Martinique were tasked to respond to the linguistic frameworks of French colonial powers that sought to address them. For Glissant, the right to opacity is the right to be unaccountable to the measures of interpretation and translation. It’s an act of active resistance in the shadows of the language and in the camera’s power of surveyance that McFarland similarly renders in her video work.