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A number of different ways of understanding what The Candahar might be

by Daniel Jewesbury

1

From wasteground to heritage and back, again, to public houses

1

From wasteground to heritage and back, again, to public houses

Begin as so often from negation.

The Candahar is not a sentimental image of an Irish pub, to be viewed with nostalgia. Nor is it a naturalistic ‘index’ of some scene that exists outside the museum, in the world. The first thing to say about it is that it isn’t really, not primarily, ‘about’ that thing which it seems so immediately, so painstakingly, to represent. It is not a documentary image, or an architectural or archaeological model; it’s a work of art. Yet this fundamental misunderstanding of art persists, that its value lies in its representative veracity. What is so powerful about this artwork is precisely its queasy proximity to the thing it represents, and its simultaneous detachment from the context in which that thing is meaningful, whether that’s the context of the place known and experienced as ‘Belfast’ (and, perhaps significantly, a Belfast of some kind of ‘then’, rather than the uncertain, barely sketched Belfast of now), or just the more generic context of the urban street where a pub is typically found: the commercial or quasi-public space of transaction and identity-formation. This sculpture is a representation of a pub, which appears to operate in many of the ways that a pub does – it serves beer, people can sit in it and drink, people can talk – and yet it is not in the public street, but in a public museum. It is not real life (however you might like to encounter or inhabit that), and that is most particularly why it is important, because it is in that gap between real life and its representation that we begin to encounter a certain subversive potential or possibility.

*

Belfast is a city poised between its violent past and a future dominated by the vague promise of commercial utopia; as if nobody actually lives in the present at all. For many decades the city has been so fragmented that in fact it was several separate, overlapping cities, overlaid in the same space. Passage between them was often complicated, physically and psychically. The Troubles and the security operation they occasioned cut the city up in obvious ways, with ‘peace lines’ built between communities and high fences installed around public buildings, but there were more insidious ways in which the city was controlled and divided. The city centre was cut off from the residential districts surrounding it by an urban freeway that, it is now clear, was intended at least partly as a means of spatial control. Within that city core the most obvious signs of the fragmentariness of Belfast – and the sites which offered the most explicit visual associations with neorealist depictions of post-war Rome – were the plentiful patches of wasteground. I spent years thinking and writing about the wasteground. Much of it was land that had been cleared to make way for more freeways, never actually built. Surprisingly little of it was the result of terrorist bombing; this spatial fragmentation was wrought by the State rather than its opponents.

In the post-Troubles era, wasteground turns into abandoned building sites, half-built office blocks and empty apartment towers. There are periods of boom and bust, and all the while, the city transforms in frenzied, sporadic jerks and bursts of activity. Beneath the image of capitalist utopia – the artists’ impressions of endless covered shopping malls, ‘iconic’ public art and effortful joyless consumption, the propaganda of the non-place – lurks a more general and persistent disorientation, a contemporary fragmentation which is qualitatively not very different to that which came before it, before everything became wonderful. The point, anyway, is that the new Belfast is as full of emptiness as it ever was.

*

Belfast is a city that holds itself in a certain regard. It’s caught in a nostalgic reverie, a maudlin dream of its past greatness; it recycles everything as heritage, from moribund heavy industry to ethno-religious murder. On message boards, its emigrants post memories and photographs of the neighbourhoods and characters they found themselves unable to live amongst.

For heritage to function as an efficient discourse, it’s best if you remove the traces of actual history. Rather than trail through the acres of dilapidated, deserted shipyards, bleak anti-monuments to disinvestment and globalisation, tourists go to the Titanic museum, where industry is presented as something that happened a century ago, was brilliant and exciting, and then mysteriously stopped existing. Similarly, the places where people were actually blown to bits or shot down get redeveloped out of ever having existed. Remarkably few memorials commemorate people who were killed ‘on this spot’, because that spot often no longer exists. Instead, the narrative of ‘conflict-resolved-as-peace’ is itself packaged as a kind of historically-cleansed heritage product.

*

The Candahar is a creative amalgam of at least three Belfast pubs, only one of which still exists at the time of writing.

The Candahar is a creative amalgam of at least three Belfast pubs, only one of which still exists at the time of writing. This may seem an incidental point, or merely a nostalgic detail, but pubs have been a good measure of the phases, or waves, of regeneration in the city. In the late 1990s, as the peace process gained traction, the first wave of new bars opened, pastiche cocktail bars which distanced themselves as extremely as possible from the traditional Victorian pubs and working men’s clubs that had been the city centre’s only bars until then. These early interlopers yearned to service a clientele of yuppies who didn’t yet exist; and once that confident, moneyed class had finally emerged, these first-wave establishments very quickly looked dated and tacky to them.

New liquor licences are almost never granted in Belfast, with the result that pubs are more valued for their licence than their physical premises. Pubs are routinely bought and knocked down, the precious licence transferred to a new premises elsewhere. A new bar opening in the city invariably means that an existing pub somewhere else has closed.

Gradually, more ostentatiously luxurious licensed premises have opened, and the first wave of faux cocktail bars have been refurbished or relaunched. Many traditional public houses have been bought and either transformed or closed altogether. The latest wave of development, perhaps inevitably, comprises re-opened old pubs, and new bars that have been made to look like the Victorian pubs that were closed down over the last 20 years. Heritage pubs.

The pub is probably the archetypal pseudo-public space in Belfast. What else is there to do? Where else is there to go?

The pub is probably the archetypal pseudo-public space in Belfast. What else is there to do? Where else is there to go? Even if friends go out for a meal, their aim is to end up in the pub. And most often they will skip the meal. Pubs have historically offered some refuge from the city and even from the Troubles, although this statement needs some qualification. It’s a myth to claim that there were ever any ‘neutral’ spaces; dividing lines exist even when they’re invisible. Both the bombing campaigns of the ’70s and ’80s, and the curfews imposed in response, spelled the end for many city centre pubs. Nonetheless, some pubs managed to survive as privileged sites of a specific kind of sociality, in which certain restrictions were temporarily loosened and the skill of learning to be with others was developed with the aid of very large quantities of alcohol. Keeping collective sociality alive was a dangerous game though, and some didn’t survive. I knew too many who drunk themselves to an early death (or are still working on it).

The post-conflict city has no communal, genuinely ‘public’ space to speak of, it wasn’t thought necessary to provide it. We find ourselves in a historical no-man’s-land, between a past which is to be both longed for, and negated, and a future still struggling into existence, through the wish fulfilment of urban branding. But we discover also that this is the temporal condition of all contemporary cities. Perpetual regeneration, this endemic urban condition of constant fragmentation and destruction and speculative reinvention, is experienced by us, the citizens, as never-ending defamiliarisation, a re-disciplining of us and of our bodies, as we struggle collectively to negotiate the city of diminishing capital returns.

2

Memories of the city become crowded by sensation and arousal

A girl, or maybe a young man, walks down a dark street in a city that she or he has never been to before, some time in mid-winter. The street is broad, it’s a commercial street, it’s the centre of the city and it’s only 6 o’clock in the evening, but all the shops are closed and the steel roller shutters are down. Nobody else is on the street. The darkness seems to be accentuated by the broad emptiness of the street; there are street lights but they seem incapable of piercing the greyness, a greyness which is not an actual absence of light but a muted, withheld light, a submerged silent light. The street lights hold their light close to themselves. The man, or girl, has a vague idea of where he, or she, is going, but as yet has not formed any knowledge of these streets that could comprise a mental map, has not had any opportunity to do so.

Afterwards, many years later, the existence of that knowledge will change the memory of this time, making that memory strange. The street seemed larger, the distance travelled seemed greater, the quiet and the dark seemed more profound, but in retrospect, knowing what is known now, they were not. It was all more mundane than it appeared at the time; or maybe, conversely, at the time it seemed quite as mundane as it really was and it was only an intermediate remembrance that transformed it into something it was not. Memory, forcing itself into the present, disrupting the future in the most subtle of ways, created a subjective experience that really, ultimately, we have to call a lie, since it can’t be communicated, shared, reconstructed, believed, described. A man, or a girl, a street, empty urban space, rusticated sandstone, quiet, and the absence of light. A feeling, but one that can’t be described, except that, like many other feelings that come from being alone in a strange public urban place, it has some sort of wanton sexual content. Some kind of buried, unrecoverable desire that translates into the hard edges of old, poorly lit buildings and alleyways that reek of piss.

...the same place years later, is the site of a feeling that they spend many hours trying to recover.

Suddenly this feeling becomes clearer, if not in the moment then in the telling: the strength and force of the desire becomes unmistakeable. It is a mental sensation that makes the heart beat faster and with more apparent intensity, which induces a pleasant feeling of nausea and enervation, and now the girl or man associates that memory with this feeling, and now this place, which in memory is disconnected from the place that they know in everyday life, the same place years later, is the site of a feeling that they spend many hours trying to recover.

3

The Candahar is a film and we’re in it

There are two basic ways one can watch a film (I’m sure there are many more, but stay with me); one can simply accept that it somehow represents or ‘is like’ the world we presume we know, the one which has recognisable physical laws which structure space and time and intentionality and causality. In that case, all other formal details being trivial, the film is simply about its plot, at the most banal level. But there is another, more awestruck way of seeing a film: that of questioning, or at least refusing to be blind to, its codes and conventions, its cuts, its spatial distortions and temporal interruptions. Then the film opens on a world that is decidedly and specifically unlike ours, a world which is unbounded by any finite possibilities of gravity or time or desire; but which also conforms, at the superficial visual level, to that which we recognise. In this way The Candahar operates in a certain kind of cinematic sense, by being specifically unlike the world upon which it has so clearly and so carefully been based. This is crucial: the representation is not simply fantastical, nor is it overtly absurd or exaggerated, nor is it rough and impressionistic. The Candahar’s significance rests on this duality, this specific unlikeness.

The Candahar operates in a certain kind of cinematic sense, by being specifically unlike the world upon which it has so clearly and so carefully been based.

The Candahar is an experiment in expanded cinema. This is not something that occurs to me primarily because of its sculptural form, which obviously recalls a film or television set, but mainly because of how it works as a representation of the thing that it so clearly calls to mind: a Belfast pub.

If there’s a formal precedent for this sculpture, it’s the stage set of Belfast’s Crown Bar that was constructed in Denham Film Studios in London, for Carol Reed’s film Odd Man Out, shot in 1946. The ornate Victorian pub – the real one – is still famous with tourists; decked out with elaborated gilded carvings, tiled walls, wooden booths, mirrors and gas lamps, the pub was too small to be used as a location for the film, so instead it was recreated in fine detail by English carpenters and set dressers. It’s been reconstructed often since: during the Troubles the Europa Hotel directly across the road was bombed more than 30 times, often causing the stained glass of the Crown to be blasted across the bar.

On the 9th of February 1996, the day the Provisional IRA ended a 17-month ceasefire by bombing the Canary Wharf office complex in London, I sat with Theo Sims in a basement pub next door to the Crown, watching news footage of the bomb on TV while wondering whether to order another drink.

On the 9th of February 1996, the day the Provisional IRA ended a 17-month ceasefire by bombing the Canary Wharf office complex in London, I sat with Theo Sims in a basement pub next door to the Crown, watching news footage of the bomb on TV while wondering whether to order another drink.

Across the city on the same day it’s likely that publican Chris Roddy was also watching or listening to news of the bombing, probably in the Rotterdam Bar, a pub in the docks that Roddy rebuilt and re-opened after it had lain empty and derelict for many years. Roddy, and his brother Conor, also a barman, have been brought out to staff The Candahar, singly or together, every time that Sims has reconstructed and re-opened it in another venue. Their presence in the pub adds further to the project’s many levels of paradox and doubleness. The importation not just of actual Irish barmen, but of these two particular larger-than-life characters, whose endless tall tales of hard men (and women) and drunken visionaries stretch the limits of plausibility, seems, at first, to be an excessive dedication to detail, in a setting that elsewhere strives to avoid the clichés of the global ‘Irish bar’. On more than one occasion viewers to the project have been heard to ask, “are those guys actors?” The presence of the Roddys in the pub also makes the viewer question exactly who is being looked at and who is doing the looking. If they’re being exoticised, the brothers are more than happy to play the part, in fact if anything they ‘over-identify’ with it. Just who’s being played here?

Having established this representational uncertainty, I want briefly to suggest other ways in which the ‘filmic’ impinges on our experience of The Candahar. In his two volumes on cinema, Gilles Deleuze describes first a cinema governed by movement, and then a contrasting one governed by a sense of deep time. Cinema that is governed by movement is precisely that cinema of action and narrative described in the first example above; time is slave to action; it is filled up with narrative. But in the cinema of deep time, we find movement (bodies) freed from any immediate causality or necessity to be directly relevant to plot. A character is able to inhabit time in the same way that we who are not in a film do, which is to say, very often somewhat aimlessly. André Bazin, writing about Italian neorealism, argued that it was the long, contemplative take, rather than the filmic cut, which was really emblematic of the fragmentary character of modern urban life. By dwelling not on action but on the surfaces of the physically fragmented (post-war) city, these unflinching takes brought into view the limits of previous representations of ‘the real’. Beyond those limits lie the many things that cannot be revealed by the surfaces that the camera scrutinises, that which we cannot know simply by looking. In this way, neorealism finds and describes a ‘truth’ of urban experience that exceeds mere visuality, it strives for a phenomenological rather than a visual indexicality.

Going back to Deleuze: those simplistic cinematic representations of ‘the real’, which he called movement-images, only show us urban space in order for it to serve as the backdrop, the hollowed-out setting of action; whereas the urban spaces of neorealism were ones that were devoid of such narrowly intentional action, in which the movement was not of individual bodies but of many bodies flowing according to multiple unknowable imperatives. In neorealism there was a concern with how we actually inhabit space and time in the contemporary city. Deleuze called the new, nondescript urban sites of neorealism ‘any-space-whatevers’, where movement took place in a space that demanded habitation in time. 1

I want to propose that what we are really thinking about when we are sitting in The Candahar is the loss of opportunities to be public, which is the contemporary experience of the urban;

Neo-realism (and much cinema that follows from it) gives us jaded viewers a ‘dehabituated’ filmic space, by which I mean a space that we can free from visual habit and learn to see anew. And this insight – this vision – is one that we should be at pains to preserve, to avoid falling back into an expectation of simplistic, de-spatialised narrative action. The Candahar, similarly, gives us a dehabituated artistic space. This is an artistic space that, by definition, demands habitation. In turn this habitation gives us an opportunity, one that we do not have in the ‘real’ world that the artwork is so specifically unlike, an opportunity to reflect on what we’re doing in there. I want to propose that what we are really thinking about when we are sitting in The Candahar is the loss of opportunities to be public, which is the contemporary experience of the urban; I’ll return to this in section five.

It is, of course, us who complete this artwork, with our bodily habitation, freed from habit, direct intention or narrative significance. We sit down, drink beer, talk with each other. We also wonder a little what exactly we’re meant to be doing, though that disoriented lack of intentionality doesn’t last too long. We create this artwork with Sims as a kind of expanded cinema, a kind of urban neorealism, a drama without any event or significant moment, that’s to say, the drama of the conjunctures of everyday life, suitably decontextualised and framed and re-presented to us, who are within it.

4

Exodus

As I wrote the first versions of this text I was preparing to leave Belfast for good, after living there for 21 years. I prepared to vacate a space that has now been entirely filled by other people and other things. There is no gap left behind me, in time Belfast will close seamlessly around my absence.

I used to think that I could not leave Belfast. Many people told me I’d stayed too long, that the place was too small, too backward, too out of the way, that I should be somewhere else, but I disagreed because my whole life was so heavily invested in the place.

I used to think that I could not leave Belfast. Many people told me I’d stayed too long, that the place was too small, too backward, too out of the way, that I should be somewhere else, but I disagreed because my whole life was so heavily invested in the place. I spent a very long time researching and writing about the city, its history, its culture and its development, making films in it, understanding it and becoming embedded in it, becoming an insider in it. I was also almost always in a relationship, and that made being there seem easier (more natural) than not being; or it made not being there more complex.

This is perverse, I know. I never wanted to fit in anywhere; since first leaving the place of my birth I have always valued the privilege accorded to the outsider. Then I discovered I couldn’t leave because I fitted in too well. It was only with time that I realised that all that work I’d done wasn’t really about Belfast, not exclusively anyway, that in fact what I’d been doing all that time was developing a methodology that I could apply anywhere. I had learned how to look at a city and ask it questions that made it reveal itself to me. Having learned how to do that in a place like Belfast, with all its particularities, there was no reason why I shouldn’t be able to apply the same process somewhere else, with different particularities.

The relationship question was solved for me too.

Now, I revise this text and change ‘here’ to ‘there’, and look through the window at another city that I am coming to know, another perpetually regenerating urban collectivity that I try to get to answer my questions.

5

Further negation, further progress – far beyond the relational

As I revise this text, publicness is again under threat, in a far more blunt and pervasive way, as cities around the world ‘lock down’ in response to a pandemic. The city in which I’m writing, Gothenburg in Sweden, experiences no such lockdown, but the more or less free movement of people around it is somehow made more bizarre as a result of being so exceptional. Even here the threat to forms of collectivity and being-public is overt. I feel that this quality of the temporality of The Candahar, that question it poses of what we must do afterwards, what work we have in store, is now clearer than it ever has been, precisely because we are now able to see what we have to lose.

Crucially, The Candahar does not fetishise the interaction of the participants who come and inhabit it. It doesn’t valorise ‘getting together’ as if that were somehow itself a ‘political’ act, or could influence or transform the political sphere. Rather, its meaning is in the reference to publicness that I tried to describe above: in occupying it, we are invited to reflect on the loss of opportunities to form meaningful public situations in the contemporary city. Through a convergence of circumstances in the political public sphere over the last 30 or 40 years, which in turn come to be expressed in the particular form of contemporary public urban space, it has become increasingly difficult even to conceptualise, never mind form, new forms of public collectivity. And The Candahar is an apposite place to reflect on these circumstances precisely because it is set apart from them, from that which it reflects or represents, because of the duality, the specific unlikeness that I’ve mentioned already; the museum, the gallery, are privileged spaces, spaces where it is sometimes possible to be simultaneously within, and temporarily withdrawn from, the world that is our object of contemplation. At no point, however, does Sims suppose that anything we are doing in here is enough to actually change these existing situations that are so deftly described and interrogated within the work. The intellectual consideration occasioned in this aesthetic realm is only a precursor to some other subsequent course of action that we may, or may not, choose to take, outside the museum, once we emerge again into the world.

The intellectual consideration occasioned in this aesthetic realm is only a precursor to some other subsequent course of action that we may, or may not, choose to take, outside the museum, once we emerge again into the world.

It’s very important not to fetishise the privileged interaction that viewers enjoy within The Candahar, since that interaction is never equal to the much more demanding interaction we have when we are struggling to create actual collectivities in the world. These collectivities require us to negotiate difference, in all its complexity and irreducibility – they require that we negotiate the limits to our self, and comprehend the way in which the encounter with the other makes a demand on that self. Public space, by which shorthand I mean the ongoing negotiation of being-in-public-together, cannot but be structured by antagonism and conflict, which is the condition of all social production. Antagonism is not the enemy of democratic participation, it is its precondition; the non-antagonistic public sphere is a totalitarian space; it is the idealised ‘artist’s impression’ of capitalist space.

The interaction that we encounter when we occupy The Candahar is not in any way a simple one. I want to think of it as somehow staging or dramatising certain complexities of a world that it is so specifically unlike.

*

It’s perhaps inevitable that a work like The Candahar, which depends on participation by the viewer in a pseudo-social situation, will come to be spoken of as a ‘relational’ work of some kind. I want to demonstrate that this requires ignoring entirely certain extremely important characteristics and contexts of this piece, and that ultimately it fundamentally misconstrues it. I want to carry on describing some things that The Candahar isn’t, in order to arrive at a more nuanced idea of what exactly it is. 2

It seems very important, firstly, to point out that this is definitely not a dematerialised artwork, one that consists solely or even primarily of the sociality which forms a part of it. Sims’s work has always been very much about a certain troubled, even neurotic materiality, and this is very much a sculpture that we occupy.

I want to insist, at the risk of trying the reader’s patience, on certain difficulties and instabilities that operate within The Candahar at a conceptual level. If it was simply about having a beer, we could all just go to the pub.

Nor should we view this as art ‘pretending’ to a social status – art that tries to negate its own status as artwork in order to appear more socially relevant or urgent. It is not an artwork that seeks to be judged in ethical rather than aesthetic terms, in a misplaced gesture of ‘commitment’ to political or social struggles. The Candahar doesn’t have meaning except as an artwork. It isn’t a social intervention. Nobody’s primary material needs are going to be met by The Candahar. Nor does it seek to shield or exempt itself, as so many participatory projects have done, from criticism as art. 3

I want to insist, at the risk of trying the reader’s patience, on certain difficulties and instabilities that operate within The Candahar at a conceptual level. If it was simply about having a beer, we could all just go to the pub.

6

What the hell is this sculpture doing here?

The Candahar is a Canadian artwork disguised as a Belfast pub; or perhaps it’s a Belfast pub disguised as a Canadian artwork. What’s unarguable is that it makes a reference to the Irish pub as an exported, global phenomenon, and to the commodification of emigrant Irishness itself.

The work is inherently paradoxical: a painstakingly constructed authentic fake. Created by a non-Irish emigrant from Ireland, it disturbs straightforward narratives of belonging and community, and refuses any simple semiotic resting space. It’s constantly in motion between poles of similar unhomeliness, in Canada, and in Belfast.

The work is inherently paradoxical: a painstakingly constructed authentic fake. Created by a non-Irish emigrant from Ireland, it disturbs straightforward narratives of belonging and community, and refuses any simple semiotic resting space. It’s constantly in motion between poles of similar unhomeliness, in Canada, and in Belfast.

There is something nonsensical in creating a fictional, but very carefully observed, Belfast pub in Canada where, despite the obvious cultural links, there really is no reason for it to exist. The Candahar stages a form of non-belonging which Sims has been occupying since he arrived in Ireland over 20 years ago (before leaving it, moving back there, and leaving it again).

With its multiple layers of absurdity, ambiguity and ambivalence, The Candahar performs nothing less than a queering of belonging and non-belonging, of us and them, and of urban public space more generally. It does this not by use of stunts or spectacles, but by deploying a subtle, unspecifiable sense of unease.

And trying to identify and name that unease is really what the viewer of this work is asked to do when they enter the bar and take a seat. Even when The Candahar is activated through some temporary habitation, one of the events that invited individuals or groups periodically stage within it, it never functions simply as a backdrop, or a simplistically idealised social space. It is not the youth club of our dreams. It never stops being a weird place to be.

We’re not in Belfast any more.

 


  1. This gloss on Deleuze and Bazin draws on Geraldine Pratt & Rose Marie San Juan (2014) Film and Urban Space: Critical Possibilities (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press).
  2. See Nicolas Bourriaud (2002) Relational Aesthetics (Dijon: Les Presses du Réel); and also Claire Bishop (2004) ‘Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics’, in October 110, pp. 51-79; and Anna Dezeuze (2005) ‘Transfiguration of the Commonplace’, in Variant 22, pp. 17-19, available at www.variant.org.uk.
  3. See Claire Bishop (2012) Artificial Hells (London & New York: Verso Books), p. 23.