Some 15 years ago I went to a kind of seminar at PS² in Belfast. It had been convened to discuss art dealing with place and landscape.
I had worked on themes of place and landscape throughout art college, and for that reason, when I carried on into postgraduate studies I ended up in the field of cultural geography.
At the seminar artists talked about their leaning towards looking at, understanding and reflecting place, in all its many dimensions – the cultural, the political, the economic, the social, the environmental. Several raised the fear that in making artwork about place, they slipped into sentiment, or reinforced romantic notions of the rural and, in this case, Irishness.
In my own work I had been aware of the possibility of falling into this trap. Making art, for me, had always been underpinned by reading, and I had touched on thinking from many disciplines in my search for ways to approach place and what it means. I was conscious of the strong attraction I had to place, its significance to my identity and its role in the ineffable but desirable state of belonging. I wanted to explore this further. At the same time I was conscious that belonging, in the context of academic study, was almost unserious. Could I take it seriously? Could I engage with the relationship between place and belonging without descending into either maudlin or dangerous (or both) notions of who belongs where and why? The risks of sentimentalising or romanticising place were compounded by the risk of developing an exclusionary Blood and Soil narrative.
As it turned out, in cultural geography I found an antidote to these poisons. Cultural geography is, essentially, the study of what place means to people, and some cultural geographers have gone further, and explored belonging. In their work I found a care and rigour applied to potentially problematic concepts of place, identity and belonging. This was especially important to me in relation to the meaning of place in Ireland and Northern Ireland. Imagery of coast, bog and mountains in the west of Ireland were mobilised as a symbol of the island as a whole, the ‘true’ Ireland, and not everyone living on the island was permitted a foothold in these iconic landscapes. In Northern Ireland, imagery of place didn’t have the same currency, but claiming place symbolically and literally, for unionists or nationalists, was key. Painted kerbs, flags, memorials, murals and the invisible dimensions of sectarian geography confined us in zero-sum micro-landscapes of belonging. Cultural geography provided a nuanced theoretical framework within which to understand how this happened, why, and how to re-think and re-present our relationships with place.
At the PS² seminar I suggested that when artists were worried about how they were engaging with place and landscape, cultural geographers might be of some help. Their work offered a thorough and critical combing-through of words, terms, ideas, images and assumptions about place and landscape. Those artists concerned with what received notions might conceal could make use of this field to shape their place-based practice. Open-ended, layered, emotionally responsive and socially engaged art-making and intellectual rigour can and do combine. The only question was where to find the critical lenses through which to view the subject – for those who were looking.
Place-making is a popular idea now. At times it is, I believe, bandied about. People who have not spent much time thinking about how place is made, and what it means, may talk about place-making with little sense of its longstanding sectarian history in Ireland and resulting power to exclude. Added to our own uneasy place traditions there are the delicacies of negotiating place-making when you are a migrant, a refugee or an asylum-seeker. These half-tones are not always absent. But increasingly it seems that place-making is the concept with which to label a project, a festival, a practice, an event for immediate cachet.
Working together year after year, we in quarto collective have come to define our practice increasingly in relation to place. With backgrounds in art practice, heritage and museum studies, cultural studies and cultural geography, we overlap most often on the matter of place. We have shared the way place is talked about in our various disciplines. We are doing our best not to make use of the terms place and place-making thoughtlessly and we know we will always have more to learn.