Settlement - Interview with Anthony Haughey

Interview with Anthony Haughey, Words by Sarah Allen

Anthony Haughey is a photographer creating some of the most interesting photographic work in Ireland today. Socially aware and strengthened by engaged thinking his pieces stalk the viewer long after they have left the gallery setting.

Contested spaces and migrant narratives are recurrent themes in his oeuvre. One such project entitled 'Disputed Territory' addressed the complex issue of the interconnections between territory and identity. Forgoing the climatic pathos filled moment that is omnipresent in the media Haughey chose to focus on the aftermath of conflict thus prompting a deeper reflection on the part of the viewer.

Settlement V © 2011 Anthony Haughey
In more recent times his work has dealt with a subject still raw in the Irish psyche. For his project 'Settlement', which opened in the Copper House Gallery last October, Haughey took as his subject matter the ghost estates which haunt our country today, standing as cruel reminders of the excesses of the boom era and the economic devastation that followed. Houses connote the presence of people yet these dwellings are deserted, as lonely wrecks they become the epitome of a haunted house. Aside from their evocative subject matter this series of images are visually enthralling and through their beguiling aesthetic reveal in stark relief the effects of economic growth on the landscape.

prism talked with Anthony about his past projects, what drives his practice and his perception of the photographic medium.

Sarah Allen: What photographer’s work are you influenced by?

Anthony Haughey: In my own practice I draw on a range of disciplines including film, literature, visual culture and of course photography. There are photographers that I continually return to. Walker Evans and August Sander stand out for me. In terms of contemporary photography I think Paul Graham has been consistently inventive and I would also add Allan Sekula to the list but this is by no means exhaustive. I think most artists acknowledge the work of their historical predecessors, borrowing and reinventing new ways and forms of visual representation.

Do you think it is the responsibility of art to comment on societal and political issues?

I don't think there are any rules in art. Personally I am most interested in how cultures and societies are continually subjected to contestations and shaped by diverse cultures and ideas. This is a continuous theme in my work.

I live in the border area of Ireland, it has really informed and influenced my practice. I have been living in this area from the mid 90s when N. Ireland was engaged in the peace process. When I first moved to this area I explored both sides of border extensively, both driving and walking. During these journeys I became aware of how seemingly innocuous objects and markers littering the landscape appeared to signify contestation between nationalist and unionist histories, evoking unspoken realities. Of course this was my own perception. I described this process at the time as a kind of ‘archaeological mining’. This led to a long-term project called ‘Disputed Territory’. I was interested in how latent historical unresolved antagonisms could be visually represented, Justin Carville coined the term 'allegory of the everyday' to describe this work.

Settlement XI © 2011 Anthony Haughey
I also worked extensively in the former Yugoslavia during this period where I produced a site-specific video and sound installation called ‘Resolution’. It focused on the genocide of 8000 Muslim men and boys, in Srebrenica in 1995. This incident had already been largely forgotten or at least fading from memory outside of Bosnia, when I was researching it in during 2002. In post conflict countries memory is also highly contested. In one sense ‘Resolution’ was attempting to create a corporeal archive. I was interested in recovering what could be described as the lost voices, forgotten memories and ‘cleansed histories’. A condition aptly described by Anthropologist Allen Feldman as a ‘vast secret museum of historical absence’.

Do you think that photography is primarily a reactionary device or one that can catalyse change?

Despite the speed of digital technologies and the assumption that photography should be instantaneous, photography is often most interesting, compelling and revealing when it is slowed down. It encourages a deeper and more analytical response from the spectator. Photographs don’t change the world in the same way that art is not political. Art can provoke, raise questions and generate a critical conversation around key societal issues whilst maintaining a tension between aesthetics and politics. The process that artists are engaged in may be political and the power relations that shape that process are political.

In terms of your project 'Settlement', did you ever worry that the public may see this body of work as a kind of aestheticization of what is essentially a poignant situation?

This was definitely a concern, I did not set out to make ‘beautiful’ photographs but they do possess a very strong visual aesthetic. I always envisaged that this series would be very carefully mediated to avoid the potential problem you describe. For the ‘Settlement’ exhibition and installation I worked with a group of architects. Collaboration has also been a significant part of my work over the years. I explore these relational and dialogical processes in my recent artist’s book ‘State’ (2011).

Settlement V © 2011 Anthony Haughey
During the research for ‘Settlement’ I was introduced to several groups of architects who were thinking about how to repurpose half finished and abandoned NAMA controlled buildings and ghost estates. They were producing architectural drawings, proposals to redesign these buildings in ways that considered people before profit. I was particularly impressed by Paschal Mahoney’s idea for a ‘Vertical Park’ to replace the iconic Anglo Irish Bank building site on North Wall Quay. All the architectural proposals shared a common goal of reclaiming the city for civic and community use. In the Settlement exhibition I wanted to point towards alternative ways to re-imagine society by raising questions and contributing to an emerging public debate.

So there is quite a positive element to this project then…

I describe the photographs of ghost estates as framing the scene of a crime but to avoid being overly reductive I invited contributions from UCD Architecture students and DIT’s NAMAlab project to create an installation consisting of thirty-two A1 architectural drawings. Each drawing was printed as multiple copies, more than one thousand prints arranged on the floor of the gallery. This A1 paper stack was arranged to visually reference the concrete foundation of a building. Visitors to the gallery were invited to take a drawing from the top of the stack, revealing further proposals underneath. By taking a drawing home, the intention was to encourage a deeper reflection of what was being proposed, an opportunity to consider a more equitable and sustainable future. The exhibition was designed to engage visitors on many different levels including an interactive website and several public discussions.

Settlement IV © 2011 Anthony Haughey
All the images from this series were made using extremely long shutter speeds during the night, what is the significance of this technique?

I started to photograph housing developments throughout Ireland during the daytime and was actually quite disappointed with the results, the images resembled real estate photographs; they documented these spaces but they did not represent what was at stake. By photographing between dawn and dusk in the penumbra or half-light, the combination of darkness, long exposures and artificial light draws attention to the destruction of the natural environment. I also search extensively using Google Earth and Google Street View to locate sites that will have the potential to create a tension between what is represented and a wider interpretation of this moment of crisis.

Was this history of representing ruins as Fintan O'Toole described in his review of Settlement something you were conscious of when taking these Photographs?

Absolutely. Within the history of art and landscape photography it is ever present. Fintan was drawing on this idea in more of a literary sense, evoking Wordsworth’s poetic reference to the ruin, “the light of setting suns”. It is exciting when writers enrich your work by bringing a new interpretation to it.

Settlement IX © 2011 Anthony Haughey
How significant is the title "Settlement"?

Titles are so important; they contextualize and encourage the widest interpretations for an art work. For me “Settlement” alludes to its geographical meaning; the settlement (colonisation) of civilisations, it also evokes the transformational process we are currently engaged in, the negotiation of a European political and economic settlement that will define future generations.

Did you receive any negative feedback or concerns about 'Settlement' from NAMA, or any other Irish authority? 

Not in Ireland actually, which is surprising considering the subject matter. The OPW recently acquired a piece for the state collection, quite a brave thing to do. Photography works on many levels, artists and photographers are simultaneously engaged in emerging contemporary art discourses and also intrinsically ‘documenting’ the world. There continues to be confusion and perhaps misunderstanding as to where photography sits in a wider art historical context. It is only in recent years that museums are beginning to explore the photograph with all its contradictions and contestations. It is still undervalued culturally, particularly in Ireland but there are signs that this is slowly changing.

Did the undervalued status of photography in Ireland act as an impetus to start teaching?

Teaching and collaboration has always been part of my practice since I was an art student in the 1980s. When I first lived in Dublin in the early 1990s. I remember David Lee who was the editor of ‘Art Review’, he was living in Ireland at that time when he wrote a scathing article about the ‘nascent state of photography’ in Ireland. He suggested three key objectives to remedy the situation, a dedicated gallery of photography, a degree course and a publishing outlet. All three have been in place since the late 90s. I have been a teaching in the Dublin Institute of Technology since 1998. Together with colleagues we designed the first BA Photography programme in Ireland. It is now possible to study photography at the highest level and gain a PhD. This has had a profound effect on the status of photography in Ireland. Graduates are consistently producing exhibitions and book projects that equal their international peers and contribute to a deeper understanding of visual culture in Ireland.

Settlement II © 2011 Anthony Haughey
Much like the property market, the art world seemed to become inflated to a crazy extent in the boom years with artists such as Damien Hirst selling works for ludicrous amounts of money. Do you think that the art world can benefit from the recession in any way?

In Ireland the recession is enabling artists to colonise and is some cases squat abandoned building developments. A number of property developers have also released buildings in many Irish cities for artists to use as studio spaces or temporary pop up galleries, this isn't done naively. There are cultural and economic advantages by encouraging temporary use of these spaces. Temple Bar is a good example where artists moved into commercially unviable buildings. This in turn generated cultural capital leading to significant investment. I hope that the availability of free and affordable spaces will encourage new artist collectives, less concerned with commercial interests and more concerned with challenging orthodoxies and rampant consumerism. In terms of the art market what is interesting here in Ireland is that the banks own a lot of art that was acquired during the economic boom. One of the architects I was working with for the Settlement installation proposed that the abandoned Anglo Irish Bank headquarters could become a public NAMA gallery, gifting art back to Ireland’s citizens.

Thank you.

Anthony Haughey lives and works in Ireland. He is an artist and lecturer/researcher in the School of Media at the Dublin Institute of Technology where he is also a PhD supervisor at the Centre for Research in Transcultural Media Practice. He is an editorial advisor for the photographic journal Photographies published by Routledge (London).

He recently completed a three-year research fellowship at the Interface Centre for Research in Art, Technologies and Design at the University of Ulster where he recently completed a PhD. During his research fellowship in Belfast he organised public discussion forums around Art and Contested Spaces, and curated public art projects including, Art, Media and Contested Space, an international public art event, which included artists, Alfredo Jaar, Peter Kennard and Cat
Phillipps and Wendy Ewald and Faisal Abdu’ Allah.

His work has been exhibited and collected internationally and is represented in public and private collections.

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