Anakana Schofield – Author of Bina, Martin John and Malarky

Candahar illusion/delusion

On Sunday afternoon last, I visited The Candahar and was somewhat surprised to have an identical conversation with the artist behind the project, Theo Sims, as I had ten years ago with the owner of an Irish themed pub, who I worked for.  Both conversations involved the same story about a man who enters the bar and sighs to the male telling the story how glad he is to have found this place and how it reminds him of home or how “at home” or comfortable in it he feels. It has a kind of heroic “come here to me, sniff me familiar armpit, look at this wallpaper and be well again,” offering the constructor a moment to revel in his achievement and feel like he’s affected a fellow man’s life.

More startling is why would either man want to be reassured that a man feels “at home” in what amounts to a faux environment and both might consider the wider implications of why a man on a street is entering a place in order to feel at home in an entirely different country. What does it say about the place he’s living in? And isn’t that a much more interesting thing to explore. (The man uncomfortable, rather than comfortable)

The Candahar is described self-importantly as a sculpture, part theatrical performance and all kinds of superfluous adjectives (add your own) that curators love to serve up.  The artist has reconstructed an identical (or so we are told) version of a “beloved” but defunct pub in Belfast. Though in actual fact it’s more like the corner of a pub when you sit in it. The artist attempts to provoke questions about authenticity.

Or does he?

He appears compelled to share some authentic nugget of Belfast (or His Belfast) with us, (to prompt us to burst into conversation on it?) which in media interviews he insists doesn’t have a trace of a shamrock. This being a badge of honour. The invocation of a shamrock and the distinction that it doesn’t contain any immediately sets bells clanging. He’s possibly contrasting his “offered art experience” with that of the now ubiquitous theme-park Irish pub. Curiously though like the theme-park pub, his art exhibit “would not work in Ireland” and is designed for a North American audience.

The artist’s choice of a pub to give us a mind-expanding experience on our ideas of Belfast is curious. Why didn’t he reconstruct an identical corner of the Linenhall library or his local laundrette, or even, at a push, a shop.

Let’s examine that starting point. Let’s acknowledge that the choice of a pub further contributes to the notion that the Irish (and now add Belfast and Northern Ireland) are really great at drinking, and experts at creating places to drink.  Drink’s all we ever think about, what we do best and so now we’ll immortalize it “authentically” in art. The final spot left where we might have hoped to have an alternative.

Why do I keep using the word Irish, when the artist hasn’t promised Ireland, he’s said Belfast. (Northern Ireland) The problem is the literature around the exhibit online referred to it as “an Irish pub” and “an Irish public house”. So on the basis that this word has been disseminated around the installation in advance, and geographic ignorance, mean many people entering it, enter it as an Irish pub. Will the artist have the chance to educate everyone and defend this sloppy reference? Based on the scuds of people in there on Sunday it’s unlikely. That day he had to scrub the board outside that was advertising it as an “Irish Pub.”

And this is where the “installation” or “experience art” is problematic. Those hordes of people enter and drink and take pictures and leave with the same tired, dated ideas about a culture (whether mistaken or otherwise for the wrong culture) that does not need this perpetrated any further. It implicates the accented people who live here with such stereotypes and means we continue to face inquiries about our relationship to alcohol and it’s extremely tedious to be on the receiving end of it. It actually takes us all back a generation to the kinds of “thick paddy” caricatures our parents and we, in earshot, endured. The stereotypes that have consistently framed our culture.

Then there’s the proffering of the pub construct as inviting. It’s described in the literature, which is prone to revision, as a place to enjoy a quiet pint, enjoy a pint or two. So snug. Except that there was nothing quiet about it when I visited, the place was over run with people, drenched in flags, all gasping it seemed for the same experience they’d get at the theme park pubs around town. Project Candahar may offer something else, but there’s little evidence of it crossing the trapeze of a psychological border. Pubs aren’t only places of quiet retreat, they’re places where lives get destroyed, lives that are lived in them rather than at the kitchen table. (Read Nuala O’Faolain describing Flann O’Brien pissing against the bar.) If anything this further indulges a masculine romance of the pub (cosy, me and my pint) that is so tired, it’s positively snoring.

I recall a film, Coming Home, made by a Northern Irish filmmaker Moira Sweeney about her travels and I recall some images or descriptions of Kilburn and her voiceover against the stark pub images were a sardonic “some craic”. An acknowledgement that along with the money sunk into them, pubs are places where for the Irish (historically especially) abject loneliness, despair is and was deposited.

The conversation.

Much of the premise of this art installation pivots around the conversation that takes place in it. (During which the punters are supposedly coming out of the shadows as far as their education on Belfast? The artist as self appointed missionary (Mo Mowlam meets Mark Twain) leading them? There seemed to be a great deal of goofy photo-snapping at the bar and whisky-tasting and little else when I was in there) The idea being the only authentic thing taking place in the bar is “the conversation”.

The conversation has become this irritating hashtag that seems to resolve any need for critical examination of what’s actually taking place. As long as it’s about “the conversation” then it has value. “the conversation” is its own rhetoric and artists are increasingly forced to become “a conversation” themselves.  (This notion of the “exotic” and a handy gathering spot appears to relieve this piece of critique.)

The idea that the only authentic thing taking place in the bar is the “conversation” brings me to another aspect that perturbs me: on a civic level what does it say about us if our route to authentic conversation is a fake corner of no longer existing Belfast pub on the 3rd floor of a building on Granville Island at a cost of 5-10 dollars entry. Why have we to borrow an environment to stimulate authentic conversation? And why should this trigger for authentic conversation be placed in such an irrelevant context, at a time that demands civic relevance.

Whether they admit it or not the “Irish pub” or “Belfast pub” has currency that other installations would not. It’s this very currency that has droves of people flocking to it.  At a time when we should be pushing out as far possible (given this time feels like a wake for the arts in BC) I’m disappointed to see seduction by such currency.  Having worked in Belfast several times I am amazed to see people settle for such a dated, romantic environment and limited idea of the place.  Words being thrown around in the media include “pure Belfast”… well which Belfast? Like any city, there are many.

Apparently the more interesting programming (which includes no response from the people culturally implicated by the bar) takes place in the evenings. It was described as a “different place” at night with a “different crowd”. In order to complete my critique I would need to attend and see if this is in fact the case. But the matter that what takes place out the front of the box refuses to acknowledge the stereotypes generated by what’s in the box means the party and intellectual expansion is essentially taking place while bouncing up and down on someone else’s ribcage.

The two barmen (described as “unscripted performers) are not on the schedule to appear on the stage out front, they remain merely “in service” during their so called performances. Why? I find this very strange.

The most interesting interaction in the bar when I was there took place around a sign hung during Rebecca Belmore’s opening night performance piece, during which (I was told) she transformed the bar into a Natives Only bar, creating what was described to me as “an incredible tension.”  The sign reads “No Indian Served After Sundown.” Some people approached or alighted on the sign, remarked to themselves on it, took pictures of it or of themselves with it (one man stuck his thumb up beside it, then appeared to catch himself doing that). No one took the sign down. Mostly they smiled as they took pictures (Very creepy) or found it “weird” that it was up there and some appeared physically repelled by the sign, moving quickly from it. I thought recording these interactions would in itself have been an interesting piece. On some level it made me wonder if it was the only aspect of the pub that the people coming in that afternoon could actively relate and respond to. Everything else they’d likely just exit with the same warm and misleading ideas about “Paddy pub utopia”.

Co-incidentally out on our streets these nights (and days) we are reminded that flag draped piss heads and binge drinkers are an international pain in the arse regardless of the flag or the city.

The one thing I was relieved to see was they’re serving BC wine and local beer. This disconcerted others, who wanted and expected to find Guinness in there. During my experiences of working in Belfast (which included community based projects mainly) the one thing I recall is that nothing was ever quite what it seemed.  I had repeated experiences of this and it may well just be isolated to those particular circumstances in which I found myself. There’s something in this art installation that unintentionally or otherwise mirrors that.

Post note: (to paragraph 4 above)

I stand corrected apparently there are now 40 pubs in Ireland of the theme park, even more sinister “authentic Irish pub (invented in 1991) selected from a brochure of 6 possible designs.” It’s verging on science fiction, market to the people an ideal of themselves, based on themselves, they pay to consume. Or are these pubs full of people visiting the country? Just as surreal.  It’s a real pity these marketing genius’ would not consider tackling the prehistoric, decaying mental hospitals that have been described as unfit for human habitation and yet house many long term patients or for that matter the disaster that is Iarnród Éireann, especially the toilets in the trains.

contradiction

Today close to Main Street in Vancouver I noticed an obese white SUV 2010 Olympics car parked on one side of the road while opposite a wide and long line of people queueing for the food bank curled right around the community centre and down the alley.

One cancelling out the other.

The line moved eventually while the car did not.

The line had spirit, the car did not.

You cannot take a bite out of a car, but it can take a bite out of you. Curious that.